Arctic Soundscapes: Revisited

Imagine you are here with us during our field season on Qikiqtaruk – tundra stretching far into the distance, cottongrass seeds blowing in the wind and shiny green leaves of Arctic willows all around you.

Cottongrass seeds blowing in the wind

Close your eyes and listen – we have already shared our impressions of the Qikiqtaruk soundscape – the bird songs, the gentle breeze and ferocious winds, the hum of the bumblebees and the calming quiet. But time has passed, and we are now approaching the height of the summer season. The landscape has changed, and so has the soundscape. There are still the ubiquitous calls of waders and the occasional moments of silence, but today things are a bit noisier – so let’s revisit the soundscapes of Qikiqtaruk.

·       Radio chatter. The Qikiqtaruk radio channel, channel 69 – the pleasure craft channel – is the main way of communication between the rangers, researchers and visitors here on the island and beyond. We can even communicate with folks at Shingle Point over 50 km away and any passing boat traffic. It can sometimes get a bit lonely while you’re out in the tundra, so it’s nice to overhear talk on the radio, be it conversations about the weather (“Do you see whitecaps at Qikiqtaruk?”, “Yes.”, “Are there whitecaps at Shingle?”, “Yep, there are whitecaps here too”), the stats relayed usually refer to how many char have been caught that day, and daily check-ins to make sure all is well. A new radio channel has been added to our usual playlist, number 72, leading us to the next unexpected element of today’s soundscape.

Radio chatter

·       Construction noises! An old caisson – a large concrete submerged artificial island –  near the shore is getting removed nearly 40 years after it was last used during the oil extraction period in the 1970s and after almost a decade of planning. The other day the peace and quiet of our Arctic summer home was overcome by the sounds of an industrial site setting up next door. The usually unoccupied waters around Qikiqtaruk are now home to four big ships, two barges and several smaller vessels that seem to be working away both day and night. It’s a peculiar mix to have first the bird cranes singing, then the construction cranes adding in less poetic notes to our Arctic soundscape!

An industrial site setting up next door

·       Speaking of noises from industry, we have our own man-made noises to contribute! Every evening into the small hours of the morning and every morning until we are ready to head to the field we now add the purr of our little Honda generator into the soundscape mix.  We have moved house from Signals House to the Trappers cabin that doesn’t have solar panels so we are now more reliant on a more ancient sunshine to charge drone batteries, computers and equipment. There is nothing like the peaceful sound of a generator to lull you to sleep in the evening when you are out in a remote Arctic field site.

The peaceful sound of a generator in the evening

·       For several weeks now the sound that accompanies you on less-than-super-windy day – particularly on the hottest day of the year – is the whine of mosquitos.  Now that we are approaching peak biomass and summer is in full swing it can actually be pretty hot out, and the tundra can feel more like the tropics.  And with the warmth come hundreds of mosquitos that have no respect for your personal space. Is it the incessant whine of the cloud of mosquitos in your ears, the fear of hives developing after countless mosquito bites or the thought of perhaps loosing your mind all together out on the tundra that makes this particular sound so hard to handle?  There is a reason we wrote a death metal song with the chorus “Mosquitos die, die, die” last year.

The incessant whine of the cloud of mosquitos in your ears

·       “Telemetry lost, telemetry recovered”, “Bad HRS”, “Compass error”, “Bad EKF” – have you ever listened to a radio show for so long that you feel like you know the hosts? Well, we have similar feelings towards the person providing the voice over for the software we are using to plan our drone flights – Mission Planner. Though the software sometimes delivers bad news, it is nice to have that sense of familiarity with the beeps and constant (but not always helpful) updates. There is a lot of uncertainty in Arctic fieldwork and there is little we can predict in advance, but it’s good to know that whatever happens, the Mission Planner lady will be there to tell you about the state of the telemetry. But if only she could tell you not only what is “bad”, but how to fix it.

Whatever happens, the Mission Planner lady will be there

We are well over halfway through the field season, and the Arctic soundscapes of Qikiqtaruk continues to surprise us.  All senses are engaged when you are out here on the island – what will tomorrow look like, sound like, even smell like?  We have been here for over a month now without a real shower, perhaps we can write a post about the smellscapes of Qikiqtaruk next!

By Gergana & Isla

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