It was bitter cold on February 21, 1985 in the Friesland province of northern Holland. Temperatures hovered around freezing, yet the city of Leeuwarden was buzzing long before sunrise. More than 15,000 skaters, a few hundred of them professional, most of them amateurs, gathered in a large hall, bouncing around in knit beanies and skating suits.
Thousands more gathered in front of TV screens and along the edges of frozen canals throughout Friesland. They'd been waiting 22 years for this day. Finally, the Elfstedentocht was back.
Known in English as the 11 Cities Tour, the event is grueling, a 124-mile course along the frozen canals of the 11 provincial cities. It starts and ends in the capital, Leeuwarden, and skaters collect stamps in each city along the way. The first skater to cross the finish line would become a national hero; every finisher would get a coveted Elfstedentocht cross. They had to be done by midnight.
As the start gun sounded, the sea of skaters poured out of Friesland Hall, carrying their skates in one hand as they ran towards the edge of the first frozen canal. The sound of blades hitting ice would soon be drowned out by the exuberant crowd.
"It was magical, it really was," recalls Immie Jonkman, who was 14 years old at the time. She had been hearing about the Elfstedentocht throughout her life, but had no idea just how special the day would be. "It's like a national holiday," she adds.
Versions of the event have existed since at least 1749; the first official tour took place in 1909. It's held only when the ice along the entire course freezes to at least six inches thick. When the weather looks promising, everyone has 48 hours to prepare the course. Residents of Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, and Dokkum spring to action, brushing snow off the ice to help it develop or baking snacks to pass out to skaters as they pass through.
The weather was never much of an issue in the first half of the 20th century. The canals froze solidly enough at least once every five years or so, and the race was interrupted only by the World Wars. The 1963 edition—the 12th—was the most brutal in memory, so cold and snowy that only 136 of the 10,000 starters managed to finish. It's known as the "Hell of '63," but if that race seemed like hell, it was only going to get worse for fans and hopeful participants. Twenty-two years passed before the Elfstedentocht went off again, in 1985.
Theo Brandsma, a climate scientist with the Dutch Royal Meteorological Institute (KNMI), also remembers the day vividly. Slightly older than Jonkman, he laced up his skates and hit the ice with friends. He thought he was ready, but there's really no understanding the event until you're in it. At one point, exhausted and hungry, he blacked out. It took him more than an hour to recover, yet he eventually got back on the ice and finished the tour.
When the conditions were right again the next year, it seemed like everything was back to normal. Brandsma skated again, this time without a hitch.
Another 11 years passed without enough ice. And since 1997—the year 18-year-old crown Prince Willem-Alexander skated and collapsed into Queen Beatrix's arms at the finish line—the weather has not cooperated at all. To outside observers, the culprit seems obvious: climate change.
The Netherlands is acutely threatened by climate change and associated rising sea levels, as more than 55 percent of the country's land sits below sea level, yet the government has been notoriously slow to accept that climate change is more than a natural phenomena. Attempting to appeal to policymakers and the public in the last few years, scientists finally found a way to strike a nerve: instead of talking about the impact on the far-away Amazon rainforest, they started talking about the potential loss of the Elfstedentocht.
In 2009, Hans Visser and Arthur Petersen of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency created a model that predicted that the ice will only be thick enough once every 18 years for the first half of this century. By 2050, it'll only develop about once every 180 years. This timeframe lines up with a study published in the journal Nature in August 2013 that found that between 2047 and 2069 temperatures will reach levels more extreme than anything seen from 1860-2005.
In 2001, Bradsma looked at average winter temperatures and maximum ice thickness in Holland throughout the 20th century. From 1981-2001, the average temperature was about 3.3 degrees Celsius, a significant increase over the 2.5 degree average of 1881-2000. For every additional degree celsius, he found, the maximum ice thickness decreased by about 2.13 inches.
Yet despite higher average temperatures, there were still three Elfstedentochts between 1981 and 2001, he pointed out, indicating that temperatures aren't the only factor. Changing wind patterns‚a natural and temporary deviation from the norm, he said—also played a role. Other climate scientists have since shown that these wind pattern changes are likely more permanent than previously expected, as the changes are caused by increasing global temperatures.
Brandsma reached the seemingly obvious conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions, and the associated increase in average temperatures, will lead to a sharp decrease in the number of Elfstedentochts held in the future.
Politicians soon started citing his research. "When I was born—in 1956—the chance of realizing a Frisian Eleven City Ice Skating Marathon in Netherlands was 1 in 4. When my daughter was born—in 1999—this chance had diminished to 1 in 10. An enormous change in one generation!" the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, J.P. Balkenende, said in a 2005 speech.
The effects of climate change will be far more devastating than losing a skating race, but if it brings more people into the conversation, it's a valid start. Visser says that the approach really struck a nerve with the Dutch people, and has written subsequent papers suggesting that other countries find similar local impacts.
For what it's worth, Jonkman, now on the Elfstedentocht's official six-person organizing committee, doesn't think the approach has actually changed the way anyone in Friesland thinks about climate change.
"We don't really know what the weather is going to be. It looks like it's getting warmer and warmer and the weather is changing, but you never know," she says, adding that they already went through a 22-year gap. Right now they've only waited 18 years.
To fill the void this year, a national TV network re-aired the entire 1985 race as if it was happening live. Some skaters participate in alternative races, on lakes or artificial ice, to get their fix; about 30,000 Friesland residents still pay a small fee to renew their eligibility each year.
They all waited anxiously in 2012, when the weather seemed promising. Every hotel in the region sold out, and 2010 Olympic speed-skating gold medalist Mark Tuitert tweeted that he would skip the world championships if the dates interfered. But as in other years, the ice melted too soon.
How long will the Dutch continue organizing the race, a year-round commitment carried out by hundreds of volunteers? Maybe 30, 40 years, Jonkman estimates. By then it'll be 2050, the point at which Visser and Petersen say the potential for the race all but disappears.
Until they have a definitive answer, though, the Dutch will stay hopeful.
"The longer it takes," says Jonkman, "the bigger and more magical it is going to be."