Peak season – peak shrub performance

Peak season has come and passed.  The willow leaves are starting to yellow and the tundra is looking less and less green.  The wind has a cold edge to it now, and the water temperature has plummeted.  Winter is coming…  We’ve collected the peak season spectral and structural data with the drones – both the hexacopter and the fixed wings.  The ecological monitoring plots have been point-framed – a really fun and pain-staking method to quantify the abundance and cover of tundra vegetation.  The shrub biomass has been harvested.  The tea bags have been collected, the litter protocol has been conducted.  The willow seeds have been counted in the recruitment experiments.  Even Joe’s dendro samples have been collected – we didn’t forget Joe!

Despite a difficult start to the summer with Arctic Fails, drone difficulties, and epic floods, these past couple of weeks have gone swimmingly well.  We have met all of our scientific objectives and made a few discoveries along the way.  Of course there are always more data you could have collected, but we are pretty stoked about the really cool canopy models we can now make of the rapidly expanding shrubs on the floodplain, the tundra spectral signatures that we can compare to plant phenology across the growing season, the 3D models of the retrogressive thaw slumps and coast line and the collection of another year of ecological monitoring data to add to the now 16-year time series from the island.

For our final field day as a team, we headed west to explore Slump D, the largest retrogressive thaw slump IN THE WORLD (or at least perhaps the second largest… in North America). Jeff, with the aid of the keen team, flew his fixed-wing drone (christened “the Arctic Turd”, derived from the original suggestion of “Arctic Tern”), mapping the entirety of the slump and its surrounding area for SfM (Structure from Motion), to make a “stupid fresh” 3D model. Part of the very helpful team was employed on a reconnaissance mission to explore the north side of the slump where grazing caribou, a glistening stream and a distant snow patch were detected, and found to be of no threat to the mapping missions. Isla and Andy valiantly stayed put at the ground control station. Isla kept Pilot J-man the K-dawg updated on the Turd’s technical homeostasis, while Andy resorted to his technical drone conversational skills to keep the mood positive, as some imagery was found missing. During a 45min aerial survey, there is a lot of time to be killed and minutes to be filled.

Then suddenly, the wind shifted from east to north and the weather conditions were no longer suitable for survey flights. Thusly, it was time to head down to the bottom of the slump and whip out the 3DR Solo quadcopter and get some wicked, radical and totally awesome GoPro HERO4 Black footage of the majestic thawing obsidian-like behemoth that is the Qikiqtaryuk Slump D headwall (btw, 3DR, GoPro, Fjallraven and others, we gladly accept any and all merc for future collaborations, promotions and social media shout-outs). After some Solo-GoPro money shots and sweet camera angles down many-metre deep permafrost holes, it was time for the classic TS jumping shots (although we’ve lost our talent for it – sad selfies are the big thing this season) and thermokarst mud fights (and epic muddy hi-5s). Then, the linearity of time caught up with us and we heard the Ranger Boat heading to our destined pick-up location. The tears of parting were soon dried however as Edward took us for a spin around the abandoned caissons – large concrete structures, remnants of the oil exploration times 40 years ago in Thetis Bay.

After returning home, we kicked back: some decided to relax by doing litter sorting for Haydn’s decomposition experiments, while the official Team Shrub group photo was shot outside of the (likely soon-to-be-drowned) Northern Whaling & Trading Co. warehouse. Sandra counted all the baby willows that have germinated in various chunks of tundra vegetation. Isla however refused to relax, and with great determination read books and drank tea (while occasionally taking a break to cook a Delicious Stew for 9 people out of an abundant, yet eclectic and diverse mix of Scottish Feast leftovers).

Look at those baby willows!

Tomorrow is the third of August, and if all goes according to plan Team Shrub will be divided yet again for pretty much the rest of the field season.  Team Kluane and J-man the K-dawg (Jeff wasn’t in Kluane – though he is now totally on Team Shrub) will be leaving on a prop plane – don’t know when they’ll be back again. Now Team Drone will be left alone on Qikiqtarȓuk for the final two weeks of our Arctic field season.  (Though, of course we aren’t really being left alone as the rangers and the German researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute will still be here and Cameron Eckert from Yukon Parks will be joining us soon.)  We will be very sad to see everyone go and are already planning what we are going to do to console ourselves after their departure – maybe a film night?  Though, Haydn says that we aren’t really sad to see them go, we are just sad that we are going to have to do more cooking and make our own lunches.

Domestic chores have actually been as enjoyable as they could be, from trying to guess who made your lunch to El making up insults using French words on food labels (“T’es un gros morceau” – “You’re a big chunk!”). And of course, with such a team, forget measuring quantities in grams or cups or spoonfuls:

– “How much Sriracha would you like in your wrap?
– About five seconds, please.”

And before the end of our time together as one united Team Shrub, we also held the annual Scottish Feast – but more on that in a future blog post.


After an exciting Twin Otter flight, several loads of laundry in Inuvik and optimist farewells to Jeff as we’ll surely see him again soon in Scotland, Team Kluane have now returned where they belong. Stay tuned for what they have been up to!



By Isla, Santo and Sandra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s