Rinks in Arctic turn to cooling systems

Winter has come to the vast, northernmost reaches of Canada, the sparsely populated area surrounding the Arctic Circle historically characterized by severely cold weather. But, according to JEFF Z. KLEIN in the New York Times, these days refrigeration systems are needed to keep the ice cold at hockey arenas.

Puvirnituq is among the Nunavik villages using cooling systems at their arenas. As temperatures climb, natural ice is harder to maintain. Photo | LeProhon

Puvirnituq is among the Nunavik villages using cooling systems at their arenas. As temperatures climb, natural ice is harder to maintain. Photo | LeProhon

IT HAS BEEN TOO WARM for December hockey in the Arctic, the latest sign that climate change is altering the environment and the way people live — especially in the far north, where the effects of rising temperatures are most pronounced.

Nine of the 14 villages in Nunavik, a region in northernmost Quebec, have installed cooling systems at community arenas within the last five years.

In Canada’s Nunavut Territory, towns including Arviat, Igloolik, Sanikiluaq and Repulse Bay have resorted to cooling systems. A system is also being installed at the community arena in Cape Dorset, a hamlet of 1,400 just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

“We used to have natural ice in the arena in October, but that hasn’t happened for a long time,” said Mike Hayward, a Cape Dorset town official. Now the ice isn’t fit for hockey until mid-January, he said. That is why a cooling system is being installed in the building.

The Canadian environmental ministry reports that the country is warming more than twice as fast as the world as a whole, with annual average temperatures in Canada up about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1948. The warming in winter is even faster, almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit over the same period, and scientists have documented a substantially shorter outdoor skating season as a result.

A study published last year by climate scientists at McGill and Concordia universities in Montreal warned that natural ice for skating could disappear from southern Alberta and British Columbia by midcentury and be significantly diminished throughout the rest of the country.

“The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of Canadian identity and culture,” the study said. “Wayne Gretzky learned to skate on a backyard skating rink; our results imply that such opportunities may not be available to future generations of Canadian children.”

The last several winters have been remarkably warm in Canada, and the winter of 2011-12 was the warmest in the historical record, with temperatures as much as 13 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in parts of the country. Last January, the winter warmth disrupted the N.H.L. All-Star Game festivities in Ottawa, as mild temperatures denied visitors the wintertime tradition of skating on the Rideau Canal.

The warming trend has been especially noticeable in the Canadian Arctic.

In Cape Dorset, Hayward noted, it rained on Christmas Day in 2010. Last month, on the first day of winter, it was only about 27 degrees.

“There’s been a big change over the past few years, to the point where without these systems now, it would not be possible for the villages to make their ice inside the arenas,” said Joe Juneau, a former N.H.L. player who has run a youth hockey program in Nunavik since 2006.

“When I started the program, I remember some of the villages starting building their ice in early November,” said Juneau, who holds an aeronautical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Now it’s very problematic. Without these systems, it would not be possible anymore for communities to have natural ice in their arenas.”

Hockey in the far north is a relatively recent phenomenon, helped largely by government-backed recreational programs and arena construction over the last two decades. Juneau initiated the Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program to encourage children to stay in school and away from alcohol and drug consumption. More than 1,000 children are involved, and a handful have gone to Montreal to pursue a higher level of play while attending high school.

Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, has had an arena since the mid-1980s and produced the N.H.L.’s first Inuit player, Jordin Tootoo. When he grew up there was only one team per age group. The hockey program in Iqaluit, the territorial capital, produced a minor league goalie, Paul Dainton, formerly of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who played this season with the Springfield Falcons of the A.H.L.

Those and other Nunavut towns have busy senior men’s leagues, and tournaments among the territory’s communities are a winter highlight.

But the warming climate has forced arena managers in the far north to forgo natural ice and turn to artificially made ice for longer ice seasons.

Some rinks installed concrete floors to promote cooling, but others employed newer technologies. The new cooling plants in many Nunavut rinks use a thermosiphon system, in which metal pipes below the arena floor send warm air outside the building.

The rinks across Nunavik and in Cape Dorset use a less expensive refrigeration system called Eco-Ice, which employs compressors standing outside the building to draw cool air in, force warm air out, and keep the building interior at a constant temperature of minus-3 Celsius, or 26.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Eco-Ice systems were installed in Nunavik because the communities wanted to extend the hockey season for the kids,” said Frédéric Gagné, director of the municipal public works department for the region.

“With global warming, it’s getting pretty difficult for northern communities to make ice,” said François Bilodeau of LeProhon Group, the Quebec manufacturer of the Eco-Ice system, which has been installed in 42 rinks across Canada in the last 15 years.

“If it wasn’t getting so warm, we would probably not be in business,” he said.

Justin Gillis contributed reporting.

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