HINDELOOPEN, the Netherlands — It’s one of the most emblematic images of the Netherlands: rosy-cheeked kids wrapped in wool scarves and pom-pom hats skating along frozen canals that cut thought the flat, snowy landscape.
The skating museum in this picturesque former fishing village is filled with such views. Whether on wintery black-and-white prints or colorful pre-War advertizing posters, they form a backdrop to what’s proudly proclaimed to be the world’s largest collection of skates.
However, with global warming blamed for fewer and fewer cold winters, some in the Netherlands are starting to worry whether the Dutch passion for outdoor ice-skating could be reduced to a memory or museum piece.
“It’s depressing,” said Hans Visser, a researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. “We have a lot of indoor skating … that may keep it alive a bit, but natural ice, that is the real thing for the people of the Netherlands, getting out into the nature.”
Visser is co-author of a report issued earlier this year that caused consternation among Dutch skating fans by looking at the potentially calamitous impact of climate change on the country’s greatest ice race.
The Elfstedentocht, or Eleven City Tour, is one of the world’s most grueling sports events, a 200-kilometer (125-mile) trek along the canals on a circuit that links Hindeloopen to 10 other towns in the northern province of Friesland.
Dutch sports fans say its grip on the national psyche is like the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and World Series rolled into one. The aura is magnified by the fact that only 15 Elfstedentochts have been held since the first official race in 1909, because on most years temperatures do not fall enough to provide the required thickness of ice along the course.
Up to 16,000 skaters, amateurs and pros, take part, cheered on by almost 2 million spectators — one in eight of the whole population. The winners are hailed as national heroes. In the mythical 1963 race, just 136 crossed the line out of 10,000 who set out in a raging blizzard.
“It is THE major event in the Netherlands,” said Wiebe Wieling, chairman of the Elfstedentocht Foundation, which organizes the race. “You are really an extreme hero for your family and your neighbors and your relatives just for finishing.”
The last race was held in 1997.
Since then, skating fans have been disappointed every year by warm winters that have raised doubts about the future of the race.
Visser’s report predicts that current levels of global warming will mean that the Friesland ice is only likely to reach the thickness of 15 centimeters (almost 6 inches) required by the race rules once every 18 years, compared to once every 7 years over the previous century.
By 2050, based on a worst-case scenario for continued global warming, he warns there will only likely be a chill big enough for the Elfstedentocht once every 180 years.
“The chances for an Elfstedentocht in the Netherlands will become very small,” Visser said.
Wieling is less pessimistic. He places his hopes on a repeat of the cold snap that hit the Netherlands last winter that allowed people to take to the ice in much of the country, even if the canals of Friesland did not freeze enough for Elfstedentocht standards.
“We didn’t have any winter for 10 years in a row, so a lot of people thought there will never be any ice skating again,” Wieling reflected.
“Now we know that it can still freeze and that it’s still possible to have ice,” he said. “Of course the global warming has an influence, it means we won’t have 15 races this century, but let’s say it will be 10 or something like that.”
That will be enough to keep the love of skating going from one generation to the next, Wieling said.
“Last winter we saw a huge group of children skating that had never been on the ice in 10 years. All the ice skates were sold out in a couple of days,” he said in an interview in the Friesland capital of Leeuwarden. “We do need winters of course, if we don’t have winter for 20 years, then nobody believes that it will happen any more.”
Meanwhile, the Dutch are keeping memories of Elfstedentocht glories alive with a movie based on the epic 1963 event, which is due to hit cinemas here in December. Meanwhile, the museum at Hindeloopen still has space to honor the heroes of the next “White Hell” whenever the race is held.