The Meteorology Of Skating

Brass weathervane depicting Andrée and Pierre Brunet at the Cambridge Skating Club clubhouse in Massachusetts. Designed by Elinor M. Goodridge. 

If you've ever talked to a skater who competed during the first half of the twentieth century, chances are you've heard the tales of competitions held in blizzards or the pouring rain; of 'hothouse' skaters who traced figures in bone-numbing minus zero temperatures. To those who haven't had the misfortune of competing under such conditions, these tales almost remind one of that parent or grandparent who "walked to school every day in a snowstorm... uphill both ways." In today's world of cushy indoor rinks, we tend to forget just how bad skaters of yesteryear sometimes had it... and how much of a factor the weather has played in the early development of figure skating as we know it. An interesting footnote in skating history that relates to this is how skating clubs in the nineteenth century took to studying meteorology.

Graham Hutchinson's "A Treatise On The Causes And Principles Of Meteorological Phenomena", published in 1835, noted that study of weather patterns and ice conditions for skating on the Clyde at Glasgow, Scotland were recorded as far back as Christmas of 1813. Eugene Beauharnais 'E.B.' Cook was perhaps best known for his prowess as a chess player, but he was also an avid skater, collector of historical skating literature and the New York Skating Club's first meteorologist. If he ascertained that there was 'good ice', a red ball would be placed atop a bell tower on Vista Rock signalling to skaters that it was safe to skate in Central Park. M.L. Gorby recalled, "'The Ball Is Up' was the cry all over Brooklyn whenever there was skating... As a youngster, I will remember the boys borrowing their father's or uncle's telescopes so that might go out in the middle of Vanderbilt Avenue from which, miles away, the big red 'ball' could be seen - if they were lucky."

A lengthy report by E.B. Cook published April 1, 1864 entitled (unoriginally) "Report of the Meteorologist of the New York Skating Club" noted his understanding of weather patterns to study and record frosts, ice conditions and trend. Through his research, he concluded, "Were all the scientific aids brought into requisition for our ponds, the number of skating days could be considerably extended." He suggested to the Club's President that "full hygrometric, barometric and other meteorological observations" be obtained from the New York observer of the Smithsonian Institute for study. He also suggested that a screen be purchased to shade the ice from the sun.

In London, England, a member of The Skating Club named P. Bicknell took a special interest in 'the meteorology of skating'. A fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society, Bicknell provided quarterly reports to the society's journal noting how many 'skating days' members of the club were able to enjoy each winter and analyzed the results. In 1886, Bicknell's research noted, "The only Club record of skating in November is two days (23rd and 24th) in 1858, but there was skating in Bushey Park on November 16th, 1879... On a pond (Captain Edwards') at Pinner there was almost continuous skating for three months, and at Rickmansworth for about seventy days; but at both places the ice was most carefully nursed - the snow kept swept, and skating was stopped in the middle of the day when desirable." That same year, a Mr. W.P. Warner of the Welsh Harp Fishery at Hendon noted that ice conditions only permitted two three day periods of 'good ice' for skating in January and February, but that in March skaters enjoyed 'good ice' until almost the end of the month!

Long before the days of weather apps, social media and the evening news, the research and advice being offered by these skating meteorologists sadly sometimes went ignored or unheeded. A prime example of this was the Regent's Park Skating Tragedy on January 15, 1867. Evidence from "The Gardeners' Chronicle" in 1841 - over twenty years before the tragedy - and reports published in the Royal Meteorological Society the year prior to the event prove that this skating hotspot was very much on the radar of weather researchers and that ice depths and temperatures were regularly monitored and researched. Had the skaters that day heeded warnings by meteorologists, many lives undoubtedly would have been spared.

If you stop and consider just how many people perished by skating on unsafe ice during the nineteenth century in particular, the importance of studying weather and ensuring ice thickness were absolutely paramount to keeping figure skaters and the sport/art itself alive.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":