Skating on changing ice, in a shifting climate

In the future, we’ll get less time to enjoy our frozen lakes.
A photo taken from the perspective of an ice skater looking downward shoes a pair of skates and the frozen lake ice below it.
Photo by Sam Harrington. Image description: A photo taken from the perspective of an ice skater looking downward shoes a pair of skates and the frozen lake ice below it.

In the future, we’ll get less time to enjoy our frozen lakes.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

I promised my friend Sarah I would teach her how to skate this winter. We’d go to the lagoon at Tenney. She’d push one of those supports ’til she was confident on her feet alone. For three weekends now I’ve had to cancel our tentative plans for lessons. It’s late January, and the city rinks are barely open. 

There was a time in my life when I would never dream of skating outside. I was an Actual Figure Skater with blades and skates way too expensive to take on an imperfect sheet of ice. I stopped skating after high school, but came back to it a few winters ago on a frozen Verona pond.

In the winters that followed I’d spend lunch breaks flying on my feet at Elver Park. Last year I skated on Lake Monona for the first time. I’d never felt ice breathe before.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a plant ecologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, talks about how Indigenous languages grant everything life. “A bay is a noun only if water is dead,” she wrote in Braiding Sweetgrass. The Ojibwe word for bay really means “to be a bay.”

“The verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live. To be a bay holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with the cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise — become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive.” 

Is anything more alive than a shifting, popping, bubbled crust on top of water being a lake?

I barely snuck two days of lake skating in this year, in the narrow window between safe ice and snow-covered ice. I went out a little before I would have liked. The ice was averaging five inches deep instead of six. It was a warm January. The third warmest start to the year in history in Madison. In the next 20 years, under a medium scenario for fossil fuel emissions, Wisconsin is expected to see 16 fewer days below freezing each year according to analysis by the Climate Impact Lab. By the end of the century, that jumps to 49 fewer days below freezing.

None of this is a surprise, really. I’m a climate reporter. I know what’s up. I know how fast winters are changing. And I know that warmer winters come with a lot of problems. More ticks, more mosquitos, more Japanese beetles to fling off the raspberries come June. Trees blooming too early, birds coming back too early, the snow melting too early. Everything too warm and too soon. 

In December I asked my three-year-old niece if next year she wanted to learn to skate. She decidedly said, “Maybe when I’m five.” Maybe when she’s five we’ll be learning indoors. Or maybe we’ll get lucky. 

Winter will still be cold, sometimes. It’s cold while I’m writing this. It’s cold whenever those thumbs of arctic air jab south from the vortex. And there will always—probably, for a while at least, if we’re good—be some kind of outdoor ice in Madison. Even in this warm January, the city managed to open three rinks almost every weekend. And they’re perfectly good rinks, too. But they’re not a frozen lagoon; they’re not a frozen lake. They’re not alive in that way I have come to love so intensely that I’ll skate for hours, soaking wet and freezing cold, just in case it’s the last chance I get. 

My favorite Danez Smith poem, “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense” asks:

have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?

the sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun, everything around you

is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you.

If we stay on this path too long, this will kill us.

I’m hopeful this current cold spell will harden Tenney enough that I can take my friend onto the ice. Teach her how to waddle like the two-year-olds I coached in high school. Teach her the basics, so that with practice, she too can know how it feels to fly on top of water being a rink.  

There’s a thing that people don’t talk about enough when they talk about climate change. We don’t talk enough about what we can save, who we could be, how good to each other—cells being people, water being lakes, and everything all together—we could be. Our world could be safer, healthier, more beautiful than it is right now. But we have to decide that’s what we want. And we have to act like it every day. And that means me. And that means you. 

Winter, in the rest of my lifetime, will never look like it did when I was a child, wasting my time on manicured ice. But it could still have frozen lakes. And I’ll do anything for one more minute flying across Lake Monona. I’ll do anything to save us. 

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