Arctic Smellscapes

Over the last two months we have often asked you to imagine what it would be like to be here with us in the Arctic. Through words, photos and videos, we have tried to bring the Arctic closer to you. So close that if you just imagine, you may well see it. You could even hear it. If you ponder the many changes occurring on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island, from changes in vegetation structure and community composition to changes in what our life is like here, and listen again, you could hear a change. The Arctic – you can see it, you can hear it, and now, for a fuller experience, we present the Arctic smellscape of Qikiqtaruk, so you can smell it, too. It may have started as a joke, and there may or may not be talk of an Arctic taste- and touchscape, but for now, we do think that the Arctic smellscape represents a unique blend of aromas – smell alone could often reveal what is going on around us and how the landscape, and our day to day camp life, is changing.

As we step through the tundra, we often think of Team Shrub members that are not out in the field with us this year – though of course we do that regardless of what the air around us smells like, there are particular aromas we associate with people. A whiff of Ledum reminds us of Haydn who dedicated a song to this fragrant flowering plant: “Ledum, I want to get some… Ledum, you rhododendron”. It has been quite hot here, and patches of Ledum bring a bit of freshness like a fine perfume into the stale mosquito-ridden air!

We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea

Of course, it is almost always followed by a much more prominent smell that follows us almost everywhere we go – mosquito repellent! Layers and layers of mosquito repellent quickly disguise any smell of cleanliness one might have acquired from the sauna the night before. But the chemical smell brings with it reprieve from the persistent insect attacks, and thus the smell is now associated for us with a major sense of relief.

We managed to catch a whiff of forest fires far away – perhaps in Alaska or down by Old Crow the other day? Tundra fires are becoming more frequent across the biome, and though we haven’t seen any here on Qikiqtaruk, we think we’ve smelled fires further away either in the tundra out west or boreal forst down south – making us realise how the impacts of disturbances often extend beyond the places where they directly occur.

Boreal forests in Canada burn frequently.

On a jollier smell note, the smell of burned wood, in particular when around camp, could also mean grilled char cooking on the fire! We have been treated to delicious char caught by the rangers, and it has been the perfect addition to our meals – from smoked char, grilled char, char soup and char fishcakes, we have enjoyed bountiful char that the ocean and rangers have to offer, both its taste and smell!  A whiff of smoke while returning to camp could also mean that the sauna is on and a chance to get clean and relax after a hard day’s work.  We miss Santeri’s sauna songs and Finnish sauna expertise, the sauna experience isn’t quite the same without him: “Herre Letonen, herre Letonen…”.

The last two weeks have been marked by the strong and very distinct smell of slump – we have been to slumps ABC and D, where complex biochemical reactions fill up the air with a smell no less complex – it is not a bad smell as one might imagine initially, just very specific to the slumps and coastal erosion. It smells like freshly turned earth, like rotting compost, but stronger, and different in a way that is hard to pin down.  What are those complex molecules filling the air associated with anaerobic decomposition?

The slumps are letting off a rather peculiar perfume

Slump D is one of the largest retrogressive thaw slumps in the Northern Hemisphere. It would certainly be hard to mistake it for something else, but if ever in doubt, its smellscape certainly confirms that we are near a massive retrogressive thaw slump! Recently we have been picking up that smell near camp as well, where big chunks of ground have been disappearing into the water – on some days as much as 3m of land has been succumbing under the waves, This rapid coastal erosion has already reshaped the Qikiqtaruk coastline near Pauline Cove. We have been working to monitor this erosion in collaboration with the Alfred Wegener Institute using drones and time lapse cameras – documenting the rapid retreat of the coastline and blocks of tundra disappearing into the waves.

In our soundscape, silence was particularly special – peace and quiet to ponder life, reflect on our time here, or just be. Here, in our Qikiqtaruk smellscape, we have to say that lack of smell can be pretty special, too. It has been a while since our clothes have been through a proper washing machine, and though we try our best, it is pretty difficult to get our clothes properly clean using limited washing water in a bucket. Thanks to the sauna and a few brave jumps in the ocean, though, we are happy to report that occasionally, we take a deep breath, and smell pretty much nothing except for the fresh Arctic air.

By Gergana

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