Holiday Reading List

If your holiday is like mine, it is a chance to catch up on all the things that passed you by in the rest of 2017. Then, perhaps you will enjoy a few of the articles that I have been reading or re-visiting over the past couple of days. While explaining to my visiting family why I do the research I do, I have been drawing connections between past and current collaborators, the activities of Team Shrub over the last year and thinking ahead to future research possibilities.

The holidays for me is a time to sit in front of the Christmas tree and catch up on some reading, be it journal articles, all of the manuscripts I have been remiss on commenting on over the past few weeks or blog posts and magazine articles on topics close to my heart.

At the December ArcticNet meeting a couple weeks back, I had the chance to catch up with folks from the Canadian Museum of Nature and to ask after the world’s premier willow taxonomist George Argus. This reminded me of my visit with George during my PhD, when I spent a wintery day with him in at his farmhouse near Ottawa going through willow samples from my PhD field sites confirming my willow ID skills and hearing stories about Alaska back in the day.  Thinking about George got me thinking about my former officemate during my MSc at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Les Viereck and my former neighbour Ginny Wood.

Ginny told me in person of the incredible tale of the first assent of Denali’s South Buttress, then known as Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. George Argus, Les Viereck, Morton Wood, Elton Thayer made the climb with Ginny flying the food resupplies in the spring of 1954. On the expedition, the very same George Argus that I met during my PhD, was left in a tent for over a week with injuries after tragedy struck high the team up on the mountain. The following article from back in 2002, gives a riveting account of the tale which is well worth checking out if you have never heard the story before. These science and conservation heroes of mine, make my own adventuring seem very tame. But I feel privileged to have got to know Ginny, Les and George during my MSc and PhD, and they remain a source of inspiration to this day.

Remembering Denali’s Greatest Rescue

George Argus sticking his head out of his tent when stuck on Denali back in 1954.

Ginny would be appalled by the current political situation in the US.  She used to discuss with me the hubris of previous administrations – a word I will always associate with her. I can’t think what she would say now.  Ginny was a great proponent of wilderness preservation in Alaska and was the co-founder of the Alaska Conservation Society.  She was a key supporter of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in 1960 when she lobbied U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to establish the reserve.

This beautiful article by Christopher Solomon from November in the New York Times makes the recent passing of the tax bill and the opening of ANWR to development this month all the more poignant. This vast tundra region adjacent to the Yukon North Slope where Team Shrub has been working for several years is a fragile wilderness that is currently exposed to potentially dramatic impacts from climate change. ANWR truly merits protection from development and it makes saddens me deeply to see that protection lost.

Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter being recognized for their contributions to Alaskan conservation in 2001.

Reflecting on the North Slope of Alaska, makes me remember that it is also a place where my car was once broken into while I was on a five-day hike in the foothills of the Brooks Range. Some of my stuff was stolen including my back pack with a few telephone numbers in it, including Ginny’s number and that of one of my MSc supervisor. When a fisherman found the backpack floating down the Sagavanirktok River, he assumed the worst, but luckily I had just arrived back to Fairbanks and could let everyone know I was okay. It was also a bit of a challenge to make an insurance claim, as the car was broken into in the jurisdiction of Barrow Alaska even though Barrow was over 500 kms away with no connecting roads. There was a lot of confusion on the other end of the line when I tried to call in the break in. That car, Dr. J, met it’s end in a scrap heap this very year in 2017, after serving me loyally for over a decade and it is a vehicle I will greatly miss. Oh, the adventures that two-door Hyundai Accent without power steering and I had!

My travels to the North Slope of Alaska with my trusty car Dr. J back in the early 2000s when I was an MSc student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Thinking about future development on the North Slope of Alaska, makes one consider the current rapid development in other regions of the Arctic.  This evocative article that appeared in the October issue of National Geographic follows the Nenets reindeer herders on their annual 800 km migration across the Yamal peninsula through the development of the Russian oil fields. I guess I knew about the article when it first came out, but I didn’t get a chance to read it properly until this holiday. The article features a colleague of Team Shrub, Bruce Forbes, who has been studying and working with the Nenets people for decades to understand their resilience in the face of change.

They Migrate 800 Miles a Year. Now It’s Getting Tougher.

One of the team, Jeff Kerby had a chance to visit Yamal this past summer funded by a National Geographic Explorer grant.  In this blog post, he recounts his time in Yamal during an unexpected heat wave working to set up exclosures to understand the impacts of herbivory and collecting drone imagery as a part of the 2017 data collection for the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network that Jeff and I have been coordinating. Fieldwork in Yamal seems much more challenging that our work in Northern Canada with soaring temperatures and thick clouds of mosquitoes, but the imagery that Jeff has put together is striking. Aerial shots of reindeer herds crossing the tundra looking like ants from above and fog flowing like a river past shrubby tundra. I wonder what secrets hi-tech drones will indeed reveal.

Indigenous Cultures and Hi-Tech Drones Reveal Secrets of Siberia

And if you haven’t seen it already, you should totally check out Jeff’s other Nat Geo contribution this year when his photography and story were featured in the April issue of the magazine. This time it is the Gelada monkeys of the Ethiopian highlands that Jeff highlights with stunning photographs and a compelling scientific story.

Where the World’s Only Grass-Eating Monkeys Thrive

On the Nat Geo theme, I wanted to give a shout out to this story about the “Trees of the Tundra” featuring Steve Mamet about treeline research in Churchill, Manitoba on the coast of Hudson’s Bay. In his quote, Steve highlights the importance of data collection in tundra ecosystems to fill in the gaps where sophisticated computers models make assumptions. Filling in the gaps is one of the main motivators of Team Shrub’s research as well.

Trees in the Tundra

Beavers, Canada’s iconic national animal, have also recently featured in the New York Times. In this December article, the Beaver is highlighted as an agent of change in the tundra in an article covering the research of Team Shrub collaborator Ken Tape. I first remember seeing tundra Beavers in Denali National Park during my time in Alaska. The Beaver is relatively at home in a treeless tundra as long as there are tall shrubs to chew on, so to is the Moose and other creatures more normally associated with habitats south of treeline. As they move into tundra ecosystems they may alter those landscapes in relatively permanent ways such as enhancing permafrost thaw as the New York Times article highlights.

And while we are on the theme of treelines, tundra and climate change, Steve, Jeff, Ken, myself and Team Shrub’s other collaborators Trevor Lantz, Rob Fraser and Carissa Brown are all featured in this online piece by Kate Allen in the Toronto Star on the impact of climate change on species distributions in the Arctic and beyond. Whether it is shrubs, trees or butterflies, climate change could be redrawing the map of where species live and thrive.

The Great Global Species Shakeup

“Matched up photos of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island Territorial Park in the Yukon to visualize changes to vegetation, permafrost and coastal erosion” – from the Toronto Star

If you want to read a bit more about Team Shrub’s media coverage this year check out Jakob’s excellent interview with Camellia Williams in September about our drone research:

Capturing change in the Arctic

Or have a read of Haydn’s interview with Lesley Evans Ogden about the Tea Bag Index – using the humble tea bag to quantify controls on litter decomposition across the tundra biome.

Brewing Big Data: The Tea-Bag Index

tea bags

And, if you want to see some of the changes we saw first-hand in the Arctic this summer, check out the CBC coverage:

Researchers stunned by rapid rate of erosion on Herschel Island

Coastal erosion near Pauline Cove this summer. Check out for the CBC article about it!

Finally, if you want to ponder how art and science can be brought together and how tundra shrubs can act as time machines to help us understand past vegetation change, check out our blog post about Team Shrub’s contributions to the Edinburgh Science Festival:

Team Shrub at the Edinburgh Science Festival

So, that is a wrap up of some of Team Shrub’s media coverage in 2017 and a taster of what I have been reading and thinking about this holiday break. Thinking back on colleagues of the past and current collaborations makes me wonder what 2018 has in store. The Arctic is likely to continue to experience rapid change, and hopefully Team Shrub will be there collecting and analysing to help fill in some of the key gaps in our understanding of tundra vegetation change. And maybe this time next year, we can update you further on some stories of Arctic change.

By Isla

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