Global warming is wreaking havoc on the world’s longest ice skating rink.
The Rideau Canal Skateway, a 5-mile stretch of frozen water that’s both a tourist icon and a nifty mode of transport in Canada’s capital city, is unlikely to open for the first time since it was built in 1971.
Unusually warm weather that’s seen temperatures soar as high as 50F in Ottawa has left cracks and occasional puddles along what’s normally a patch of ice strong enough to support more than 20,000 skaters a day.
“I’m devastated,” said Barbara Hyde, as she strolled along a sidewalk beside by the canal, where she would typically don skates 10 to 20 times in a normal season. “I can’t believe I’m not skating. It’s ridiculous.”
The closure robs residents and visitors of a unique feature of one of the world’s coldest capital cities. Not only does it bring in tourism dollars during this month’s Winterlude festival, it’s a key part of the city’s fabric.
Students at Carleton University skate to the pubs downtown along the canal, which runs from the school to the Ottawa River near the Parliament Buildings. Government workers sling bags on their backs and skate to the office, stopping at huts along the way that sell brown sugar-laced Beaver Tail pastries. Skating parties are the norm on chilly Saturday nights.
“As an Ottawan it’s sad; that’s the best word I can use,” said Jantine Van Kregten, a spokesperson for Ottawa Tourism, who notes hotel bookings and spending are below 2020 levels this year although better than during the pandemic. “If you had asked me whether it was possible that we could go a winter without opening I would not have believed it.”
Without the frozen canal, a UNESCO World Heritage site, winter festival organizers have had to get creative. The ice dragon boat race was canceled, as were the annual curling and hockey matches. The Winterlude Triathlon, in which participants normally skate, cross-country ski and run for a combined 19 kilometers, switched to snow shoes and skis this year. Ice sculptures along Sparks Street near Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office were carved early in the festival but didn’t last long in the heat.
Locals may be saddened by the closing, yet the trend of milder winters and shorter openings has been building for years as global warming accelerates. The canal skating season has averaged 50 days over the last five decades, though it’s been below that figure in six of the last eight years, according to data from the National Capital Commission, the federal government agency that manages the attraction.
While a record 1.49 million people used the Skateway in 2018-2019, as extended cold temperatures kept the canal open for 70 days, the seasons have tended to range from 25 days to 40 days more recently.
“That’s been the reality for several years — the season gets shorter and shorter,” Hyde said. “I’m not shocked that something like this is happening.”
Still, the NCC hasn’t ruled out a brief opening this year, which would be the latest on record if it happens at all.
“We remain hopeful that we’ll be able to welcome skaters to the Skateway this year,” said spokesperson Valerie Dufour.
Temperatures are expected to dip down to -15C this week for several days. That still may not be enough for the commission, which says it needs at least 10 straight days of -10C temperatures or colder to open safely. The ice has to be 30 centimeters thick to cover a waterway that runs up to four meters deep in one section known as Dow’s Lake.
“They haven’t given up yet but it’s really not looking good,” said Van Kregten.
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