Can Canadian sports survive climate change and COVID-19?

Winter activities like skiing and skating bring us together as a country

You may feel that hockey, skating and skiing are important parts of Canada’s national identity. But slushy ski slopes and melting backyard rinks are a troubling reminder that iconic Canadian winter sports may not be safe in a warming world. Add COVID-19 to the equation and the picture and we should be prepared for a significant transformation of our cherished pastimes.

Much of the sporting world woke up to the fragility of global sports and tourism when a University of Waterloo study found that many of the 21 cities that had hosted the Winter Olympic Games prior to the 2018 Games in South Korea may soon be too warm to host the Games again.

michelle rutty“Snow-based tourism is one of the sectors most at risk to climate change. It’s considered the climate ‘canary in the coal mine’ of the tourism economy,” says Michelle Rutty (PhD ’14), who was part of the research team and is now a professor in Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment. “People are often shocked to learn how big the tourism sector is. For example, ski and snowmobile tourism contributes more than $9 billion per year to Canada’s GDP.”

If Canadians didn’t fully appreciate the role of tourism in our economy, they certainly do now, in light of the novel coronavirus.

COVID-19 brings tourism to a standstill

Faculty of Environment climate change expert Daniel Scott was Rutty’s PhD supervisor in Environment. As COVID-19 brought the global tourism industry to an unprecedented standstill in late March, the future climate change vulnerabilities for tourism dependent communities and countries were demonstrable.

“COVID-19 provides striking lessons to the tourism industry, policy makers and tourism researchers about the effects of global change. The challenge is now to collectively learn from these parallel global crises to accelerate the transformation of sustainable tourism,” says Scott.

The effects of climate change and COVID-19 go beyond the environmental and economic. We need to get outside, be together and share activities for the good of our mental health.

Rink Watch, a Waterloo-based citizen science research project, was launched with the understanding that our shared experiences — in this case skating — are critical to a healthy Canadian population.

Their project asks Canadians to submit information about the condition of their backyard rinks to help environmental scientists monitor winter weather conditions and study the long-term impacts of climate change. 

Haydn Lawrence, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Environment, helped create Rink Watch because of an interest in climate change and data-driven citizen science. “I’m not necessarily a die-hard hockey fan. Actually, I can’t even skate,” he says with a laugh.

The citizen data collected by the project gives researchers a better understanding of conditions inside as well as outside city centres, where most monitoring sensors are located, and offers a better picture of how climate is changing our planet, our neighbourhoods and our lifestyles.    

Backyard rinks part of Canada's identity

“Backyard rinks give people a reason to go outside on an otherwise miserable day,” Lawrence says. “Winter activities like skiing, skating and snowboarding bring us together as a country, but more than that, having a safe backyard rink to skate on can bring a whole neighbourhood together. This goes beyond the economy or any cultural identity.”

If citizen science endeavours like Rink Watch translate to COVID-19 monitoring is anyone’s guess at this point. But for Scott, there are already plenty of climate change lessons we can draw upon as our tourism industry tries to recover from the pandemic lockdown.

"Tourism ‘success’ has been historically defined by virtually all tourism organizations as growth in tourism numbers,” he says. “The COVID-19 crisis should be seen as an opportunity to critically reconsider tourism’s growth trajectory — especially in regards to emissions. For example, as a result of the significant decline in demand, airlines have begun to phase out old and inefficient aircraft.”

Where there are opportunities to reexamine the role our leisure plays in climate change, there are also potential dangers.

“In our rush to return to normal, and avoid a global recession, there will be forces pushing for even faster growth to make up for lost revenue,” says Scott. “With low fuel-prices, we could see the roll-back of hard-earned victories in sustainable tourism. The challenge is now to collectively learn from this global tragedy to accelerate the transformation of sustainable tourism.”