When a thousand Dutch speed skaters gathered in January’s pre-dawn darkness to race on an enormous ice-bound lake in a small town in Austria, they were both determined participants in a joyous, nearly 400-year-old sporting event—and witnesses to the escalating reality of climate change.
“Speed skating on natural ice is a beloved Dutch national pastime,” reports the New York Times, and the tradition is “alive and well—just not necessarily in The Netherlands, where climate change now yields winters too warm for the waterways to freeze over with any consistency.”
This vanishing of The Netherlands’ winter ice has “been felt most profoundly in a historical event called the Elfstedentocht, a one-day, long-distance speed skating tour through 11 cities of the Friesland province,” writes international sports correspondent Andrew Keh. The event “has been held casually since the late 1700s and more officially since 1909.” It covers a continuous route of about 200 kilometres, and can occur only when ice cover on the inland waterways of Friesland reaches at least 15 centimetres.
“Once a relatively common phenomenon,” Keh writes, such thick ice has become “exceedingly rare,” with the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency calculating that “the annual chance of an Elfstedentocht dropped from 26% in 1950 to 6.7% in 2017 (or, in terms of average return periods, once in four years in 1950 to once in 15 years in 2017).”
Such odds have many Frieslanders wondering if the tradition of the Elfstedentocht will simply melt away.
Determined, in any case, to keep the race alive in spirit, nearly 6 000 people from The Netherlands have, for each of the past 31 winters, journeyed to the village of Weissensee to participate in what is known as the “the Alternative Elfstedentocht.” A 12.5-kilometre course, the race demands contestants complete 16 laps in under 11 hours. Skaters range in age from 14 to 77.
The “icemaster” for all 31 races has been 72-year-old Weissensee resident Norbert Jank, who “monitors ice conditions and prepares the course with an arsenal of homemade tools and retrofitted vehicles,” the Times writes. When the Dutch first arrived back in 1978, the entire lake was their race course. That only half of the lake now freezes deeply enough for skating “is all rather worrying,” Jank said.
Back in The Netherlands, “the aura of the original race—which features a competitive event and a recreational tour for amateurs—has only grown in its absence,” the Times notes. And for now, “the 10 volunteer board members of the Royal Organization for the Eleven Frisian Cities, which oversees the race, prepare extensively for it all year, every year, as if it will happen.”
That’s simply because the race is so hugely popular, with current preparations “based on estimates of 30,000 skaters, almost 1.5 million spectators along the route, and 20 million more” watching from home. “There will be a year that makes up for all the years we wait,” board member Sytse Prins told the Times.
Such brave optimism is shared by board chair Wiebe Wieling, who told the Times that “it was too early to consider scaling back the yearly preparations.” He added, however, that should the “real” Elfstedentocht not run again within the next 10 years, “you will hear a different discussion.”