Our first days on Qikiqtaruk

It’s a mystical morning here on Qikiqtaruk – the fog bank has been moving in closer and closer, and now we can only see as far as a few meters away from camp. The bright blue forget-me-nots are vibrant enough to stand out of the mist, with their clusters of flowers swaying in the light breeze.

Home sweet home when on the island – Pauline Cove – with rapidly melting sea ice in the foreground and fog bank in the background.

But it’s not just forget-me-nots that are growing – there is new life all around us. Amidst the fog, sandpiper and plover chicks are taking their first steps, willows, forbs and grasses are flowering, and as the snow and ice retreats, the island is becoming more and more alive. We have now been here for six days and the landscape is already very different to what we saw when we arrived on our first day.

New life abounds in the Arctic at this time of year like this baby sandpiper chick.

After weeks of preparation, we boarded our plane in sunny Inuvik, and took off across the Mackenzie delta with beautiful views in all directions. The closer we got to Qikiqtaruk, the more sea ice was seen and the more the Arctic ambiance increased! We were joyfully greeted by park rangers Sam and Shane and conservation biologist, Cameron Eckert.

Within hours of us touching ground, we had seen several willow species, a polar bear den, birds most of us hadn’t seen before, a colourful carpet of flowers, and big chunks of ice moving across the sea – a great start of our fieldwork adventure. After taking in the beautiful views, we set out to find more ice, but this time underground! What in the world beyond Qikiqtaruk would surely be a mundane task, putting away bread, here is a lovely walk to an ice house covered with intricate ice crystals.

Over the next couple of days, we set up camp and our drone lab, and visited our field sites. We were happy to see that most of the markers on the drone plots had made it through the winter – having clicked on many of those markers whilst processing drone data over the winter, I enjoyed seeing them in real life, too! We also put out the big markers I made in Inuvik – we needed bigger markers which would be visible in all bands of imagery data we are collecting. Painting 90x90cm black and white squares in front of the Aurora Research Institute was a great conversation starter – I got to meet several drone researchers and learn about their work thanks to the markers!

We have successfully completed our first round of data collection, most of which aims to capture early season phenology of tundra vegetation. We have also set up plots to monitor how active layer depth changes as the frozen ground thaws over the summer – it was such a cool feeling to reach below the moss and feel the ground as solid as an ice cube! We have been inspecting individual plants in our plots marked out on the ground, noting their phenology stage and growth, as well as looking up in the sky, where our drones have been flying, giving us a landscape-scale view of the tundra below. One of my personal favourite elements of our fieldwork here is seeing how different methods and scales of investigation come together. From looking at below-ground processes, like decomposition rates and changes in active layer depth, moving to the surface, where beautiful Dryas flowers are opening their white petals, and up into the sky, where our drones are capturing how Arctic ecosystems are changing from above!

By Gergana

TeamDrone sent us that post over the satellite phone email.  Stay tuned for more updates as the field season progresses.

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