Drones airborne and data beginning to roll in

We have been on Qikiqtarȓuk (Ummmarmuit spelling of Qikiqtaruk/Qikiqtaryuk – the local Yukon Coast/Aklavik dialect of Inuvialuktun) for two weeks!  I can’t believe it.  It seems like we just arrived yesterday.

We have also finally managed to collect drone data with both of our two machines, Shrubcopter and Droney McDroneface.  Yay!  Finally.  There are still some kinks to be worked out.  Drones!  For everything that goes according to plan, there is always something else that goes wrong!!!  But rather than bore you with the technological details, I will inspire you with the science.


This summer we are trying to answer two big picture questions with our research. We want to know 1) how tundra plant phenology, biomass and carbon storage are changing over space and time as tundra plant communities shift in response to warming, and 2) how the greening of tundra ecosystems as observed by satellites matches up with the observations we are making on the ground of phenology and vegetation change.

In order to answer these questions, we are combing 15 years of ecological monitoring data with imagery collected with our drones.  We are then analysing this imagery to make indices of the greenness of the tundra landscape (vegetation indices such as NDVI – the normalized difference vegetation index) and structural models of tundra plant canopies and the ground surface.

Here is what we know already about vegetation change on Qikiqtarȓuk. These are the summarised observations that we and the Yukon Parks Ecological Monitoring Team (see Meagan’s post from last year) have made about the vegetation changes over the past 15 years on the island:

1)    Shrub cover is increasing in the floodplain vegetation (Myers-Smith et al. Ambio 2011)

2)    Canopy heights and the cover of plants are increasing and bare ground is decreasing in the upland vegetation (manuscript in prep.)

QHI_CanopyHeight3)    The green up and flowering of some of the monitored species are occurring earlier over time particularly in early snow melt years (manuscript in prep.).

We are putting together a manuscript summarizing these findings at the moment in collaboration with the Yukon Park rangers and Parks Biologist Cameron Eckert.  Stay tuned for more info on this manuscript in the coming months.

This summer, we want to add in drone data to bridge the gap between the ecological changes that we are observing on the ground across the landscape and compare with what satellites are observing from space.

Our four specific questions with our drone research include:

1)    Do drone data capture on-the-ground plant phenological changes over time more precisely than coarse spatial and temporal resolution satellite data?

2)    Can we observe particular phenological events such as flowering across the landscape (drone data) to compare to on-the-ground phenology measurements and phenology change over time (ecological monitoring)?

3)    Do the larger biomass/biovolume parts of the landscape (e.g., tall shrubs and tussocks) have the greatest rates of increasing size across the landscape?

4)    Are the species that are showing greater change in cover and “biomass” over time on the island (ecological monitoring data) the same species that show the greatest increases in size over the growing season (drone data)?

So, now that we are up and running – for the most part – with drone data collection we can start to gather together the necessary data to test these questions.  Exciting times.  Thus far we have only really looked at some pretty and very high resolution pictures of shrubs, tussocks and tundra from our various sensors including our new Sequoia multispectral sensors.  But hopefully over the coming weeks the preliminary analyses will start rolling in and we can share some of our initial findings from this summer’s research.

To date the Qikiqtarȓuk scientific discoveries include:

1)    Variable active layer depths – The depth to frozen ground is greatest in the wet areas where the dense shrubs are located and less in the uplands and shallowest in the tussock tundra. Currently on the floodplain the active layer is greater than 50 cm depth, around 20 – 30 cm in the grass and flower dominated Komakuk vegetation type and a bit shallower around 10 – 20 cm in the tussock tundra.

2)    It’s an early year – It is a relatively early flowering year for the tundra plants such as Dryas integrifolia (Arctic avens), though not as early as last year.  It is now day 180 of the year (29 June 2016) and the Dryas flowers are starting to come out across our side of the island.

3)    Shrubby diversity – Though the floodplain is dominated by mostly Salix richardsonii growing up to over a metre and a half tall, there are some other willow species in there too, such as the odd Salix pulchra individual and a few Salix alexensis, which are very rare on the island and identified for the first time by us last year in this same area. In warmer places such as Kluane, Salix alexensis can grow to be up to four metres tall!  I wonder if they will ever get that tall up here on Qikiqtarȓuk?

Stay tuned for more scientific discoveries as they role in and more updates on our adventures.

From a steely grey and totally calm midnight Arctic where you can’t tell where the ocean ends and the sky begins.

By Isla


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