How are outdoor ice skating rinks kept frozen in warmer climates?

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Each year, lovers of fun wintertime activities grab their blades and hit the ice to glide across one of the many smooth, frozen surfaces of outdoor ice skating rinks across the United States.

However, these outdoor rinks aren’t just limited to colder climates that are all too familiar with blizzards and below-freezing conditions. In Florida, thousands of skaters can enjoy real ice surrounded by palm trees and the sun’s warmth during winter.

Downtown Tampa’s Winter Village at Curtis Hixon Park draws in an average of between 20,000 and 25,000 ice skaters annually to its rink, which has been a winter staple of the area since 2011.

Tampa’s high temperatures in mid-December and mid-January average around 72 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Paul Walker.

That’s a far cry from the often frigid conditions experienced by those enjoying the ice rink at New York City’s Rockefeller Center this time of year.

Ice skating in downtown Los Angeles - AP Photo

Locals take the opportunity to skate on the "Downtown on Ice" outdoor skating rink with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees and the sun shining brightly on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Farther south, the Florida Panthers host two outdoor ice rinks in Greenacres and Fort Lauderdale each year. Fort Lauderdale, which is about 28 miles north of Miami, experiences average high temperatures of 77 F and 75 F for mid-December and mid-January.

Contending with weather factors

How are these outdoor ice rinks kept cold, even in warm weather conditions?

It comes down to contending with three main factors: humidity, wind and heat, according to Shaun Drinkard, senior director of public programming and operations for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

It may come as a surprise that heat is often not the biggest challenge when it comes to the upkeep of outdoor ice rinks in Florida.

"Heat is the least of the three,” Drinkard told AccuWeather. “Humidity is the biggest one and wind is the second. Heat is a very small factor in the overall scheme.”

Floridians experience humidity all year round, according to Drinkard, and even the lowest level of humidity is still a lot when it comes to maintaining the ice.

Humidity overnight results in dew atop the ice while the rink isn’t in use. When there’s a small amount of humidity on the ice, it creates frost, and in higher humidity, a layer of water forms on the ice.

“[When that occurs], it’s really just a lot of manual handwork of pushing the water off and getting that temperature back up on the ground level to then freeze once the water’s off of there,” Drinkard said.

Removing water buildup is key, because it’s difficult for the liquid to solidify as more water sits on the ice.

“With any rink, whether you’re in the far north or even down here in Florida, if you get a lot of water on the ice, it never freezes,” Drinkard said.

For the Florida Panthers’ outdoor ice rinks, wind and heat have caused issues in the past, according to outdoor rink manager Grant Levins.

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“In 2017, our biggest issue was the sun, it was pretty hot during December,” Levins said. “In 2018-2019, the wind was probably the worst of it.”

The wind can melt the ice, Levins explained, and it can’t refreeze when the wind is constantly moving it.

“You have to wait until the wind stops before you can let it freeze or fix the ice,” Levins said, adding that there have been days when the rinks had to be closed early or opened late due to adverse weather conditions.

How the ice stays cold

It takes about two to three days to create the ice at the downtown Tampa ice rink and about five days to build the rink itself.

To keep the ice cold enough for skaters, the rink uses a minus-5-degree chiller, which is essentially a very large refrigerator that runs for 24 hours a day. “It’s the machine that keeps the ice frozen,” said Rachel Radawec, placemaking and community engagement manager for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

Minus 5 degrees is the chill temperature, but the ice temperature varies depending on the temperature outside.

"Glycol runs through the pipes, like a freon system, and that’s pumping the coolness throughout a pipe system underneath the ice,” Radawec explained. “There’s a layer of insulation and plastic, the pipes and then you have the water that’s going there.”

This same process is used in ice rinks across the U.S., even with National Hockey League (NHL) rinks, Drinkard said.

The process of building the rinks is fun and unique, especially with seeing people’s reactions to the fact that real ice is used, according to Levins.

“We’ve had so many people come up to us and ask, ‘Is that the fake stuff?,’” he said. Operators of some ice rinks in the U.S. prefer to use synthetic ice rather than the real thing.

“They’re just amazed at how it’s frozen, it’s really cool," Levins said.

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