A guide to surviving a big CATT encounter or ‘a Love Letter to Tundra Protocol’

The hours we got to spend on the stupendously remote Arctic island of Herschel-Qikiqtaryuk were sometimes spent discussing Frontier Science in the warm comfort of our cabin, or cavorting around Simpson Point engaged in a game of American base-foot-softball. But most often our time was spent in the arctic embrace of the island tundra; immersed in various data collecting, recording and sampling tasks. 

The following paragraphs have been devoted to two protocols most enthralling and alluring; my second & third loves in all of this world: the CATT (Carbon in Arctic Tussock Tundra) & the PFEM (Point Framing for Ecological Monitoring) protocols. Assuredly, before the end of this post you all will have joined me in my enthusiasm toward ecological fieldwork and its brilliant intricacies. 

The CATT protocol aims to estimate the carbon locked in the tussock tundra biomass (the clue is in the name). More specifically, CATT wants to know the C content within the dead-leaf mounds formed by Eriophorum vaginatum; recently an increasingly expansionist sedge (yet an old native inhabitant) in tundra ecosystems.

“Blimey, how could one ever hope to quantify all the carbon sequestered by just one species”, you may ask yourself. If by now you’re having a pretend conversation in your head and the answer to your own question is: “Gee, I suppose one could do it by measuring the dimensions of all of the tussocks on Herschel Island in EVERY single compass point, henceforth generating a fair estimate of the volume -> biomass -> C content of each tussock.”, you are correct (and perhaps from the University of Notre Dame). Because that is exactly what Team Shrub did. Almost exactly that. 

By laying down a large transect (200m in length) the valiant comrades of TS shouldered a massive 2-day effort in quantifying the Carbon in Arctic Tussock Tundra. And although some members of the team periodically visited the realms of apathy, delirium and even feral aberration, yours truly was breathing in every second of it. See, the CATT protocol is not about how long it takes, or how many height measurements and soil cores you take, or how well you account for observer bias while trying to figure out what a tussock actually is, or how many times you average soil moisture measurements in a bog… it is about the commitment. the sweat and the data. the mystifying bond between man and tussock. 

However, before CATT there were others… Other protocols that I to this day hold dear, and the memories of which still occasionally keep me up at night. One of the more intense of these experiences on Qikiqtaryuk was Point Framing. This tundra protocol involves a 1m x 1m frame (divided into a hundred ten-by-ten centimetre cells by using dead fashionable pink thread) being carefully placed on an Ecological Monitoring plot; a piece of tundra with a history of being looked at very intensely for a couple of hours every year to few years for the past two decades. In each thread intercept a flag is dropped and the plant species / litter & ground type touching the flag pin is recorded. 

‘This ‘recording’ involves one person uttering an enigmatic mix of species abbreviations, canopy height measurements and leaf/stem/flower numbers to an unsuspecting field assistant armed with but one finger and an iPad. And that, in essence, is the best thing about Point Framing: conversation is an effort in futility. Only the most courageous attempt it. The second best thing about point framing is that Ecological Monitoring plots are multiple & wonderfully diverse. So the PFEM is repeated time after time, the species forever changing — with unwavering enthusiasm as the day pushes on. This long-term engagement makes the effort of course all the more rewarding and the data present sweeter than Kirkland Fruit Trail Mix. 

One might think this post sarcastic — tongue-in-cheek at best. However, the things described here are most genuine, and radiate straight from the heart. I, like all the members of Team Shrub feel nothing but love and affection toward our wonderful field days, which are always full of laughter, tomfoolery and friendly wrestles, however wet, muddy, buggy or catty it ever gets. 

Yet, I have one love over CATT & PFEM, and that is telling people how much I love CATT & PFEM.