The changing face of winter: Sports edition



Now that we have recently been marching headlong into summer-like temperatures, it might be time to look back at the winter that wasn’t for many of us and ask how a changing winter may affect activities we enjoy. Year-to-year it may range from kids not having enough snow for a proper snowball fight to the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, arriving weeks early and messing up travel plans to see them. But the stakes can be higher than just snowballs and cherry blossoms.

Longer-term changes in winter conditions can also mean big impacts to winter sports, such as skiing and snowboarding. Just ask Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Ski resorts and companies are seeing the writing on the wall and recognizing potential impacts to their business. Some have been speaking out and taking steps to address climate change. But now it seems as if a staple of Canadian winters, ice hockey, and more specifically outdoor ice hockey, may be under threat.

Change, at times, can be nice. It did feel really good to break out shorts in February, but there is still the lingering feeling that it’s somehow not normal. And it’s hard to argue that this winter has been normal for many in the U.S. and Canada. However, one crazy winter a trend does not make.

When talking about climate it is the longer-term changes that are important. Some of the record high temperatures this season are largely explained by the jet stream providing a blocking pattern, essentially trapping cold air in the Arctic and not letting it leak down into parts of Canada and the U.S. The jet stream does move around and strengthen and weaken in naturally changing ways. But it is fair to ask what influence a changing background climate had on this winter’s records or other types of weather extremes for that matter.

A newly released IPCC report takes up this topic and compiles work from scientists around the world. Although extreme weather events make headlines, the slower changing background climate also contributes to a range of impacts that people care about.

A recent paper highlights one of these impacts that those of us who have never strapped on an ice skate may not appreciate—that of a shorter outdoor skating season. The study begins by pointing out general changes to Canadian winters, such as winter temperatures increasing by 2.5 °C (4.5 °F for us Southerners) since the 1950s and a decrease in cold spells for much of the country over the same time period. With daily swings in temperature much greater than 2.5 °C, it helps to put this in context by looking at possibly more relatable changes to everyday life.

The study did this by looking at the length and start of the outdoor skating season as measured by days cold enough to make rink ice. Over the roughly five decades of measurements a majority of their locations spread across Canada saw “significant” decreases in the length of the outdoor skating season with some regions having stronger trends than others. Fewer locations showed delays in the start date, but some regions did show overall later start dates, such as in the Southwest, Central, and Eastern parts. Also, they rightfully look at year-to-year changes, in addition to the longer-term trends, and how those relate to natural variability. They found these ups and downs match well to naturally occurring atmospheric patterns.

The results of this work highlight a point often made in climate science studies. There will still be natural variability or changes in the weather that influence impacts. This won’t go away. It will still snow and get cold even as global and regional temperatures increase. But now we need to also consider how the longer-term, average weather (the climate) is changing and influencing things as well. Looking over decades of change and across large areas, which this study did, allows for a picture of the role the longer-term changes play, in this case for outdoor skating.

With winter well in the rearview mirror and having just come off of “summer in March,” it leads me to think about my own childhood sports rite of passage of playing basketball all day outdoors during summers. I personally can’t relate to the shortening of outdoor hockey seasons, but the trends and projections for summers would seem to place what I enjoyed in my younger days at risk as well. Science can’t tell us what impacts to value or care about (for instance, a European heat wave with enormous public health impacts vs. outdoor hockey vs. outdoor basketball), but what it can do is tell us how some things we value are changing and what may be causing those changes.

About the author: Todd Sanford is a climate scientist with expertise in the atmospheric chemistry and physics of the climate system. His current work involves the public health impacts of climate change. He holds a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Colorado.