Climate Change Dampens Local Winter Sports

Ridge Road hard to identify after December 21 storm

Ridge Road hard to identify after December 21 storm

The following is reposted from Ottawa Outdoors Magazine. If you want to help make a difference right here in Ottawa send an email with your interest in climate change issues to volunteer@ecologyottawa.ca

Climate Change Dampens Winter Sports in Ottawa-Gatineau

Shorter seasons, more mush, less ice

When the storm hit Gatineau Park at the end of December and devastated ski and snowshoe trails, I was at a cottage north of Montreal where power lines snapped under branches laden with wet snow, leaving 130,000 hydro customers without power for six days.* I spent a lot of time reopening cross-country ski “trails” so blocked with a tangle of broken trees that they were unrecognizable and impassable.

In Gatineau Park the scene was the same. Twice within a two days, groups of snowshoers became so disoriented by the jumble of trees that they completely lost their bearings on a trail near Meech Lake. They had to be rescued by a combination of police, firefighters, volunteer searchers from Search and Rescue Global 1, and a helicopter.

At that point the NCC – the federal agency in charge of the park – took two unusual steps.

First they warned people they’d be fined if they ventured onto trails marked as closed.

Then they called for volunteers, which sounds like no big deal but it was. In the days of the Ottawa Ski Club Trail Riders it was common for volunteers to help clear trails, but in recent decades – because of insurance worries and environmental concerns – the NCC has been leery of volunteers. But this time there was little choice. The cleanup was so enormous and the impact on the ski season potentially so lengthy that suddenly volunteers were welcome to help open the trails again.

The past winter’s count of hydro outages and the damage to Gatineau ski trails is unusual, but fits with the traits of climate change. Because temperatures are warmer – approximately 2°C warmer in winter here – we get more freeze-thaw cycles. That means more times when the temperature hovers around freezing and more times when snow can stick to branches. As well, a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. So when big storms happen, they can dump more snow.

Scientists never blame a single storm on climate change; instead they say the probability of having such a storm is increased by climate change.

A sudden thaw in March 2012 moved Gatineau Park from ski season to cycling season in six days as temperatures reached into the mid-20s. A spate of news articles appeared bemoaning the fate of outdoor hockey in future years as the trend continues; it’s a cover story again on the January/February 2013 edition of Canadian Geographic.

In February 2012, the Rideau Canal closed for skating after one of the shortest seasons on record. For the first 10 years after canal skating began in the winter of 1970–71, skaters were on the ice for an average of 70 days. Over the last 10 years the season has dwindled to just 55 days – not counting mid-season closures. The NCC has been working on schemes to keep it open longer, such as cutting water weeds in the fall so their dark leaves don’t make the ice absorb more sunshine. And over the years the NCC has discovered ways to make the canal surface freeze whiter after flooding, because whiter ice reflects rather than absorbs the sunshine that can turn the skating surface to mush.

Alpine skiers aren’t immune to the warming trend either. In 2009, the report On Thin Ice from the David Suzuki Foundation reported that ski resorts including those in our region were likely to lose approximately a third of their season, even with aggressive increases in artificial snowmaking.

There are lots of groups trying to encourage action on climate change. Among them, Ecology Ottawa is working to get Ottawa City Hall to pay attention to the heat, since the Federation of Canadian Municipalities reports that 45 per cent of local greenhouse gas emissions fall under the jurisdiction of cities. You can get involved by emailing volunteer@ecologyottawa.ca and mentioning your concern about climate change.

(Charles Hodgson is an adviser with Ecology Ottawa.)

* Editorial powers at Ottawa Outdoors Magazine changed the meaning a little here. 130,000 Hydro Quebec customers lost power, mine was out for 6 days.

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