Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hockey and Climate Change: Canada’s Game in a Warming World

It seems to me that all this talk about the potential impact of climate change on Canadian food production is missing the point. Has food production ever won us Olympic gold over the Americans? Has food production ever filled an arena in Winnipeg? Do you reminisce about where you were during the famous food production series of ’72?


Well then let's dispense of all this non-essential talk and get down to what really matters: what does climate change mean for hockey? More specifically, what does the possibility of all that melting ice mean for Canada’s place in hockey?

Our Place in the Game

We already fear “our game” slipping away from us. There was a palpable dose of relief mixed in with the joy of our celebration after Sidney Crosby won us gold in Vancouver. It was the same relief that every home, street and classroom must have felt as Paul Henderson saved our national sport from the Soviets in 1972.

The loss of our hockey teams to the American south stings even after the return of the Jets. We look nervously across the border just as we once anxiously marvelled at the Soviet machine. There are now more kids playing hockey in Texas than in all of Alberta. We worry that they will catch up, and we hugged our neighbours at the dramatic Olympic conclusion, happy to have staved that day off for a while longer.

Will it come? Is it a pure advantage in numbers which has maintained our global hockey stature? In what does our comparative advantage consist? The answer to this question is what will determine whether climate change poses a legitimate threat to our perch atop the hockey world. There are two possibilities:

Possibility number one is that frozen lakes, ponds and backyard rinks matter, either because we actually use all of that extra ice time, or because they shape our consciousness. Think of the Staal brothers beating the #$%! out of each other on their farm, Gordie Howe skating miles through Saskatchewan or Wayne Gretzky spending every second of his day on Walter Gretzky’s homemade rink.

Possibility number two is that hockey is so firmly embedded in our national consciousness that the availability of natural ice is now just a pleasant, but unnecessary, scaffolding for our collective identity.

Climate Change and Canada

Let’s bracket that discussion for the moment and turn to the issue of climate change’s impact on Canada. We used to say “global warming”, but have modified our terminology, since climate change is going to mean warmer temperatures in some places and colder in others. Still, on average, things are going to get warmer. And ice – as you well know – tends to prefer the cold. Seasonal temperatures are trending upward and there have already been studies which suggest that the availability of suitable pond hockey ice is on the decline.

Environment Canada shows a great deal of seasonal temperature variation over the past 63 springs, but 1.9 degrees worth of warming overall. For winter temperatures, Damyanov et al. (2010) claim a warming of 2.5 degrees since 1950. According to another study in the Journal of Climate, there has been a loss of two-thirds of the Great Lakes ice cover over the last four decades.

Meanwhile, the IPCC projects continued general warming for the region, and most ominously, significant warming where snow is reduced:

“The largest warming is projected to occur in winter over northern parts of Alaska and Canada, reaching 10°C in the northernmost parts, due to the positive feedback from a reduced period of snow cover.”

And if we extrapolate far enough:

“In the most extreme case of the Southwest Canada region, a simple linear extrapolation of the OSS length trend from the last 30 yr of our record into the future shows that the number of viable rink-flooding days could reach zero by mid-century.” (Damyanov et al.)

Ah, hell.

Unless there is a radical departure from the prevailing temperature trends, we are likely looking at the end of Canadian pond hockey – at least in the places with moderate population density – within a few decades.

Does Alberta become Texas?

The rest of the world will soon be dealing with climate change as well, but it’s not like warmer temperatures are going to reduce the number of outdoor rinks in California. So this seems the appropriate time to revisit our earlier question.

If Carolina can produce artificial ice then so can Edmonton, so the real question is whether there would remain any qualitative difference between Alberta and Texas. Given that the latter is now producing more hockey players, would that give them an accompanying advantage in quality?

A popular belief is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. I don’t think this is true in all cases, but I’m willing to bet that Canada produces a few NHLers every year out of a pool of players who would not have made it without putting in all those hours on the local pond. Without natural ice, we would likely lose a few players, and our hockey player production would become concentrated in areas with many artificial ice surfaces. Probably cities. Building arenas thus becomes a priority.

As for the depths of our caring, it’s hard to look at the example of Winnipeg and not think that our love of hockey extends beyond the absence of ice, decent teams, the immediate presence of any actual hockey games, etc.

Moving Forward

It strikes me that some combination of practice and religious-like devotion to the game is responsible for whatever hockey-related success we have enjoyed as a country. Guy Lafleur never would have snuck into the local rink at 6am if he didn’t love the game, but he never would have become Guy Lafleur if he hadn’t put in all that practice time either. Whether our interests will shift as the ice disappears is anyone’s guess, but if hockey is to remain “Canada’s game” then we’re going to have to work at it. Damnit, if Texas can make ice, then so can we.  

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