Even though the Rideau Canal Skateway did not open last winter, there is hope for 2024.

Environment Canada’s Senior Climatologist David Phillips says Ottawa appears to be on track for a proper winter. That forecast, and others, has the National Capital Commission preparing to open the Canal to skating.

The Weather Network confirms Phillips’ optimism. In a recent winter forecast, while warning of the traditional warming role El Niño can play, it concluded that, east of the Prairies, “winter could make more than just a token appearance during January and especially February.” That period, as the NCC notes, is prime time for the world’s biggest skating rink.

“Preparations for the 54th season of the Rideau Canal Skateway are well underway,” NCC spokesperson Valérie Dufour wrote in a statement to Capital Current. “The skating season typically starts in mid to late January when a 30-cm thickness of good quality ice has formed. To achieve this, our ice experts need about 10 to 14 consecutive days of temperatures between -10 °C and -20 °C.”

There is uncertainty, however, because December has started out milder, though, with lots of precipitation. Yet even though it will be slow to get cold, Phillips said he would be surprised if Ottawa didn’t see skating on the Canal this winter.

The highest and lowest winter temperatures ever recorded in Ottawa from 1889 to 2023. The December records were -38.9ºC, on Dec. 29, 1933, and 17.2ºC on Dec. 4, 2012.

One way experts hope to ensure the Skateway opens is through a project from Carleton's engineering department. Led by Prof. Shawn Kenny, students are developing a robot, dubbed Snowbot, that could clear snow when the ice is too thin for heavy equipment.

Kenny told CBC Ottawa Morning "[The team] are looking at different technologies and strategies on how to promote ice growth particularly early in the season when they cannot get conventional equipment on the ice to help grow the ice itself."

William van Geest is the program coordinator for the environmental non-profit Ecology Ottawa, which, he says, held a vigil for the Rideau Canal when it did not open for skating last season. 

“It really hit home that the Canal wasn’t open, it’s such a staple,” he said. “As [climate change] effects kick in, things we love about winter won’t be available anymore.” 

Inconsistent cold temperature is just one of many recent instances of weird weather. Tornadoes in May, wildfires and choking smoke in June, rain and flooding in the summer and unusual heat in September have also affected Ottawa and Canada in general. 

This sign might be a bit premature but then again forecasts are suggesting a more normal winter in 2024. The chained-off pathway at Carleton University has been blocked off. [Photo © Jessica Shackleton]

Meanwhile, John Crump, the president of the Glebe Community Association, said, “Our image of what a winter city constitutes is changing.

“We all like to complain about the cold, but it needs to be a livable city with enough attention to winter as well as summer.”    

For instance, “I encourage the NCC to get out there and shovel the stairs [to] make the parks usable in the winter,” Crump said, referring to the many chained-off entrances to parkland or other areas maintained by the federal agency. 

Maintaining the Rideau Skateway is a topic of discussion in Ottawa, but there must be a balance between enjoying winter activities and being aware of the impact of climate change, said van Geest.

“Some folks in Ottawa consider how these climate change effects will change our activities, but we need to realize that livelihoods and people’s lives are affected,” said van Geest.

One thing that all Canadians have in common is an obsession with the weather. 

“It unites us all,” Phillips said. “It’s not hockey, television shows, whatever — it’s the need to know the weather.”