With weather heating up the nation's capital, Ottawa's Big Three national festivals will be forced to change. According to a climate change study, tulips reach peak bloom in Ottawa around May 9, after the start of the annual May Tulip Festival. But if the weather keeps getting warmer, 'Under the least-change scenario, tulips are projected to appear, on average, 12 days earlier than at present. Under the warmest climate change scenario, tulips are projected to emerge 54 days earlier, which places the date tulips first sprout from the ground close to early March. In the warmest climate change scenario for the 2080s, it is possible that tulips will emerge around February 1; this is 10 weeks earlier than current conditions.' (Photo courtesy Wei Wang)

Why skating on the canal in February and tulips in May
could soon be a thing of the past in the nation's capital

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Three times a year, the National Capital Commission throws a party on a grand scale, then invites Canadians from across the land and visitors from around the globe to join the festivities in Ottawa.  

There’s the July 1 bash on Parliament Hill celebrating Canada’s birthday and marking the official start to summer, Winterlude in February to toast winter, and the Tulip Festival in May to usher in spring with a riot of colour.  Together, the three festivals bring in a bigger chunk of tourist dollars to the national capital than all other events combined.  

Front-and-centre in each celebration is the Rideau Canal, a 202-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage Site that runs through downtown Ottawa. At this time of year, when ice forms and the waterway is transformed into a magnificent 7.8-km skating rink, you know that all is right with the world and that Winterlude, with its ice sculptures and pond hockey and giant snow slides, is just around the corner.  

But what if the canal isn’t frozen when Winterlude arrives Feb. 3-20? What if the tulips, an important symbol of international friendship, aren’t blooming May 4-21? What if Canada Day is so hot that folks gathered on Parliament Hill and in nearby Commissioners Park are suffering heatstroke, or worse, sent fleeing by the smell of a canal blooming with toxic algae?  

These scenarios are not science fiction but very real possibilities, according to scientists studying how climate change could alter the NCC’s three major festivals, along with the ski trails, beaches and the entire ecosystem of Gatineau Park for which the federal agency is also responsible.  

Already, behind the scenes, the NCC is setting long-term goals with global warming in mind. For example, while the canal will still be the heart of Winterlude, this year’s festival will see more events held indoors as the NCC seeks ways to broaden the scope of the annual tourist draw to attract a wider audience, all while keeping the weather — and its associated costs — in mind.  

According to a recent report to NCC board of directors, Winterlude  — which generated a whopping $73.8 million in economic activity in 2008 alone — “faces many challenges,” with costs and climate change at the top of the list. Based on a 2009 report from consulting firm Gagné Leclerc, the board agreed that teaming up with community groups, such as music festivals that could sponsor indoor concerts as part of Winterlude, is the way to go since good weather cannot be guaranteed over the event’s three weekends. This year, the Ottawa Jazz Festival is partnering with the NCC during the 32nd annual Winterlude, offering up a series of concerts at the National Arts Centre and other downtown venues. Major events are also planned indoors at the Canadian Museum of Civilization as Winterlude marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Coast Guard and holds a pre-Juno Awards celebration.

You can’t have a winter carnival without outdoor activities, however, so the Rideau Canal Skateway, Rogers Crystal Garden in Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa, home of the ice sculptures, and the man-made Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques-Cartier Park across the Ottawa River in Gatineau will still be headquarters central. If the weather co-operates.  

While the canal was partly opened for skating earlier this week (a 3.6-km stretch between the Corktown Foodbridge and the Bank Street Bridge), there is no guarantee this section will be open at the start of Winterlude Feb. 3, let alone the entire length of the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink. In recent years, it has not been unusual for warmer temperatures to invade Ottawa in February, forcing the canal rink to close due to poor or unsafe ice conditions, and melting all those wonderful ice sculptures. Which is why non-melting artwork will also be featured outdoors at this year’s Winterlude. 

Nation's capital heating up

According to a 2005 study prepared for the NCC by the University of Waterloo on the implications of climate change on tourism and recreation, there is no doubt that winters are getting warmer in Ottawa and will continue to do so.   “On average, winters are 1.5 (degrees) C warmer now than they were in the 1940s,” says the report, which makes projections about future climatic changes based on three time periods — the 2020s, the 2050s and the 2080s. “The National Capital Region also receives more precipitation now than it did in the 1940s. Annual precipitation has increased 13% since 1939. The duration of ice cover on many of the region’s lakes and rivers has diminished over the last century, and are experiencing a trend toward later winter freeze-up and earlier spring break-up. Lake Simcoe, located southwest of Ottawa, currently freezes 13 days later and breaks up four days earlier than it did 140 years ago.”  

What does this mean for the future of the skateway and Winterlude?  

According to the study, Ottawa’s climate is predicted to continue to become warmer and wetter under climate change, with more of the precipitation occurring as rain. Ottawa’s mean annual temperature will increase between 2.6 C and 6.5 C by the middle of this century (to the 2050s) and between 3.0 C and 9.9 C by the end of the century. Winters are also projected to become warmer. Mean winter temperatures are projected to increase between 2.0 C and 8.5 C in the 2050s, and between 3.6 C and 12.5 C in the 2080s.  

The good news is that warmer temperatures, especially during Winterlude, will attract more people. The bad news is that warmer temperatures will affect what they come to see and do. “For example, cross-country ski races require at least 15 cm of natural snow to set a regulation track for a classical ski race. It is likely that this threshold will continue to be met in the 2020s. However, the least-change scenario projects four fewer days during  Winterlude with a 15-cm snow base in the 2050s and 2080s. Notably, the warmest climate change scenario projects that days with a natural snow pack of at least 15 cm will be eliminated by the 2050s, putting cross-country ski events in jeopardy unless snowmaking is used.”  

At the same time, the snow slides at Snowflake Kingdom, which are usually built using natural snow, with snowmaking used during unseasonably warm periods, will also be more costly to maintain because more man-made snow will have to be trucked to the site.  

The Rideau Canal Skateway, Winterlude’s prime official site, will also suffer under the effects of climate change, with later opening dates and a shorter skating season.  

According to the study: “The Skateway currently opens, on average, around Jan. 1 and operates for 61 days. In the 2020s, the average operating season is projected to range between 43 and 52 days. As the climate continues to warm, further reductions are expected. In the 2050s, the Skateway is projected to be open between 20 and 49 days. A skating season of 20 days represents a six-week reduction from current conditions. In the 2080s, the warmest climate change scenario projects that the average skating season will be reduced to just one week, while the least-change scenario still projects a 42-day season ... The warmest scenario also projects that in the 2080s, the Skateway’s opening will be delayed until the start of Winterlude.”  

Climate change means change in policy

Perhaps NCC planners looking ahead to Winterlude 3000 might want to feature gondola rides on the canal?  

To adapt to climate change, a workshop that was part of the study suggested more indoor events for Winterlude and an increase in refrigeration for ice sculptures and snow slides, all of which is currently happening. Also suggested was to downplay the importance of the skateway as an attraction, something the NCC is not ready to do at this stage, especially after Guinness World Records confirmed in July 2005 what everyone had been boasting: the Rideau Canal Skateway is indeed the “Largest Naturally Frozen Ice Rink in the World,” with a maintained skating surface of 165,621 square metres. The fact the Rideau Canal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2007 is another reason to keep the spotlight on the canal winter, spring, summer and fall.  

For those who believe that climate change forecasting is nothing but gloom and doom junk science, a look at the annual statistics tabulated since the skateway opened in 1970 reveal that change is definitely in the air. In its first 20 years of operation, the canal skating rink was opened in December 15 times, with 10 of those years featuring skating on or before Christmas Day.  And while people still dream of skating during the Christmas holidays, the likelihood of that happening again is unlikely. According to the NCC’s statistics, the skateway was opened in December only eight times in the past 22 years, all after Christmas, and there has been no December skating in the past seven years.  

This year, the skateway was declared officially opened on Jan. 15, although only one section was ready for skating on that date. That’s because winter got off to a warm start in Canada, including Ottawa, where consistently cold temperatures are needed to create ice that is the required 30 centimetres depth needed for a safe skateway.  

Along with later openings, the skating season has been getting shorter on average, with closing days scattered throughout to accommodate snowstorms, ice storms and freeze-thaw cycles. In the past decade, the number of closing days has ranged from zero in 2004-05 to 16 in 1998-99, making it difficult to plan skating visits or even commute to work.  

While climate change is affecting winter tourism in Ottawa, it is also making it increasingly difficult to plan for the annual Tulip Festival, the largest of its kind in the world. Held in May, you never know what weather you’ll get or even if all those hundreds of thousands of tulips lining the banks of the canal and city parks will be in bloom.  

A tulip festival without tulips?

According to the climate change study, tulips reach peak bloom in Ottawa around May 9, after the festival’s start.  But if the weather keeps getting warmer, “Under the least-change scenario, tulips are projected to appear, on average, 12 days earlier than at present. Under the warmest climate change scenario, tulips are projected to emerge 54 days earlier, which places the date tulips first sprout from the ground close to early March. In the warmest climate change scenario for the 2080s, it is possible that tulips will emerge around February 1; this is 10 weeks earlier than current conditions.”   What this means is that as early as the 2050s, “tulip phenology and the Canadian Tulip Festival may no longer correlate as tulips could regularly reach peak bloom before the Festival even begins. Having tulips in bloom is critical to the credibility of the Canadian Tulip Festival.”  

No kidding!  

The NCC’s gardeners have been trying to adapt to climate change for years by placing fences to increase snow cover on flower beds to delay bulb maturation, planting bulbs in shady spots to slow their growth, and planting bulbs with different rates of maturation. In the future, the study suggests the NCC will either have to change the date of the Tulip Festival, or just call it a spring festival and showcase not only tulips, but other spring flowers.  

For those who like to go to the beach, camp and golf, the good news is that warmer temperatures in Ottawa will mean more days to enjoy the great outdoors in spring and fall, two seasons that will get longer.  

Before the worst-case scenario is upon us, you might want to book your visit to Ottawa while February is still winter and May is still tulip season.  

In case 2012 turns out to be one of those years where “average” need not apply and temperatures dip to old-time teeth-chattering lows, you’ll be happy to know that the NCC has replaced several 1970s-era buildings along the skateway with seven “chalets” — four changerooms and three washroom. Architecturally unique, the chalets are “warm and spacious,” says the NCC’s Jasmine Leduc. “And there’s a beautiful view of the canal when you’re sitting in the chalet,” she adds.  

And in a nod to global warming, for the first time both the Rideau Canal Skateway and Winterlude will be carbon neutral, joining Canada Day and Christmas Lights Across Canada  as the NCC’s other environment-friendly events.  

Don’t forget to check skateway conditions before you set out. — January 2011