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Our Warming World

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Our Warming World looks at the everyday ways environmental change is impacting Canadians. From the effects of global warming on tourism to aquatic osteoporosis in Canada's lakes, this series looks at all the little ways in which we interact with our changing natural world.

'You can't win': Rideau Canal skateway vendor gives this year's warm winter a frigid reception

| March 4, 2016
Flickr: Renato Lorini

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For avid skaters, this year's season on the Rideau Canal could have gone better. The canal closed last week after suffering its shortest season yet, clocking in at a mere 18 days. It only opened fully for a few of them.  

The official Twitter account for the NCC Skateway broke the news candidly: "Mother Nature 1 #RideauCanal 0. Sorry, we lost the battle. #Skateway is now closed for the season."

It's just one example of the challenges a warm winter can bring for festivals, organizations, and businesses. But although the season was disappointingly short for skaters, it proved doubly so for many of the skateway vendors. 

Paul Davids is the owner of Caffeine Fix, a newcomer to the skateway vending scene. "Basically from the start the weather was causing problems, because the ice wasn't thick enough to tow the vehicle on," he says. "We had to be craned onto the canal. So that was an extra expense, and that was the start of the mild weather."



When a brief cold snap finally occurred, things were no better. Unaccustomed to the cold, skaters didn't stay on the ice long enough to purchase food and drinks, instead choosing simply to get a quick skate in and leave.

"You can't win," says Davids. "It's too mild or it's too cold." Though he says Caffeine Fix will return to the canal next season, this winter ended costing him. "We've got a lot of product left over, so from a business point of view, it wasn't great," he says. "It did end up costing us money for this event."

It's certainly not the first time a warm winter has posed problems for vendors. Adam Hendren, a five-year Beaver Tails franchisee, says the 2012 season brought similar challenges. Though he says his stand was relatively well-equipped to deal with this year's adverse weather, the winter still had its hard spots.

"Things are much more bleak this year than in previous years," he says. "I think (the problem) is more being open for a few days and then closed for a few days, it's really inconsistent. We depend a lot on school groups and tourists and stuff like that, and when you don't have consistent ice conditions and consistent openings, I think people start to reconsider their trip to Ottawa or their trip to the canal."

With vendors and winter enthusiasts alike losing out this season, the long-term effects of warm weather on winter activities have become especially concerning.  Most climate scientists are predicting a warmer earth and more extreme weather fluctuations in the years ahead, raising further questions for future winter festivities. Not the least of these is Winterlude, a three-weekend celebration of winter in Ottawa.

Though climate change only appeared in the spotlight of public concern relatively recently, the Department of Canadian heritage, which runs the festival, has been working to mitigate the effects of warming winters for decades. According Katherine Cyr, a communications advisor with the Department of Heritage, Winterlude has been steadily adapting for the least 30 years.

In the mid-1990s, the festival was extended from a 10-day event to a three-weekend event, to better increase the likelihood of good weather. The festival has also moved its ice slides at Jacques Cartier Park in an attempt to reduce sun damage and invested snow-making equipment that can operate in milder weather. 

Though these adaptations have been ongoing for years, there's no official plan in place to address the possibility of increasingly mild winters. "We don't have anything concrete in place," Cyr says. "What Winterlude would look like in 10 years, it would just be speculation on my part."

But despite uncertainties for future weather events, she's confident Winterlude will return to Ottawa for years to come.

"We do have over 50 programming partners... they organize a ton of activities in Ottawa Gatineau, and a lot of these are not necessarily weather dependent," she says. "There is a big part of Winterlude that will happen regardless of what Mother Nature gives us."

But for vendors, unpredictable temperatures are still tough to bear. Though both Davids and Hendren say they will be back on the ice next year, both recognize the damage a warm winter can do.

"It's just unfortunate for everyone involved," says Davids. "The organizers, the other vendors the public: everyone loses out. So let's hope next year can be a big improvement. It wouldn't take too much!"

Jen Halsall is studying journalism and history at Carleton University in Ottawa. She also makes very small, very cute terrariums and sells them on the Internet. She is rabble's 2015-16 blogs intern.

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