Soon after sunshine reached the valley floor Wednesday morning, city of Bozeman park staff headed to a field of snow and took turns leaning into the weight of a hose blasting out hundreds of gallons of water.

By afternoon, they had the beginning foundation of an ice rink.

People walking by occasionally stopped to ask if the neighborhood encircling Beall Park was finally getting its winter skating spot.

Thom White’s answer stuck to some version of the same idea: “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

White, the city’s parks superintendent, has helped build Bozeman’s outdoor ice rinks each winter for 28 years.

Overall the work has offered a pretty steady routine. November brought cold temperatures and by December, the ground’s frost was ready for ice.

“We’d try to have the rinks ready in time for kids’ winter break,” White said.

The city usually has four rinks. But it’s mid-January and the only outdoor rink the city’s put up so far is an impromptu couple-inch surface over the Beall Park basketball court. Cones signal where it’s too bare to skate.

“It’s better than nothing,” White said.

There’s a chance the rink city staff started building Wednesday won’t work out. The day started below zero. By noon, it was almost 30 degrees. Thursday was predicted to get into the 40s — unfriendly temperatures for ice.

“Some places, skating rinks are disappearing because it just isn’t cold enough,” White said. “What we see here are fewer days to skate, unpredictable weather. It’s hard not to shake my head when people ask about ice rinks and it’s 50 degrees out. If I could control the weather, it’d be different.”

This winter, the city of Bozeman joined Rink Watch, a citizen science research initiative that asks people to help environmental scientists monitor winter weather.

Robert McLeman, co-director of Rink Watch and a scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, said the initiative began in 2013 to study the long-term impacts of climate change in a way that’s relatable.

“People hear glaciers are disappearing, polar bears are dying, small islands in the pacific are sinking. In reality, most people will never see a glacier, or polar bear or travel to Tahiti,” McLeman said. “But people like to talk about the weather, and we like hockey.”

Roughly 1,500 parks and backyard rink builders have added to Rink Watch’s data across North America — largely out of Canada — and as far away as Russia.

Pairing that data with climate change projections, Rink Watch scientists predict skating days out east, in places like Toronto and New York, could drop by 34% by 2090.

The West is more likely to see what McLeman called “yo-yo” winters — some cold and some abnormally warm. With that unpredictability, Montana and Alberta could see 20% fewer days of skating by the end of the century, McLeman said.

“That’s fairly conservative,” he said. “Fifty years from now, winters will still be cold, but they may not be cold enough, long enough to make it worth the while to make a rink.”

He said that will hurt in areas where skating rinks are an outdoor haven.

“Life would go on, but there’s some sort of cultural importance to it that would be lost,” he said. “When you think about the greater scheme of things, of climate change, it’s fairly minor.”

In Bozeman by mid-Wednesday, White was hopeful the town’s rinks would stick.

The Beall Park field looked something like slush — a good sign. If the plan works, the cold of the night will seal in the first layers of ice, which White said would act as a refrigerating system. By Thursday the crew could start to “roll water” over the ground.

“Like little tsunamis,” he said.

After daily monitoring and flooding or spraying the area up to three times a day, in a week the field could be the neighborhood’s icy gathering spot once again. The city also hopes to wrap up the two rinks at Southside Park.

“People think it’s just like filling up an ice tray; it’s more complicated than that,” White said.

Along with less predictable winters, the parks crew have more streets and sidewalks to shovel each year, which takes priority as public safety. And White said, eventually, using water to make a rink in a drought-prone valley may not play out well.

White said it likely wouldn’t work to build rinks any later than this time of year. Even if temperatures get cold enough, the sun’s position in the sky by late January can act like a laser on the ice.

“We’re going to make rinks if we can,” he said.

Until that happens, White will likely keep taking calls from people wondering where Bozeman’s rinks are.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at or at 582-2628.

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