Running any field experiment can be a gamble.
Running a field experiment four thousand miles from your office, by the side of an alpine lake, set in great tracts of boreal forest in the north of Canada…that is bordering on foolishness.
For the past five years we have been propagating tundra willows in a warmer home. Plucked from icy mountainsides and wind-swept islands, these hardy plants have been relocated to the relative comfort of Kluane Lake, around 8°C warmer than their mother land. The speed at which they have been growing, and the differences across source sites, tells us a lot about how climate change could transform the tundra.
Of course, one problem with studying the effects on climate change is that, well, the climate changes.
This spring, and now on into the summer the rain did not fall.
Five years on from their first shoots appearing, many of our tundra willows are not coping well with the heat and the drought. Beasts of Kluane Lake that have put on over a metre of new growth in past years, are this year skeletons, long limbs lying cracked and brown in the heat. And yet other species are soaking up the sun and the heat like tourists abroad. Our field correspondant, Gergana Daskalova, reports:
“The garden looked very different compared to last year! The pulchras are not taking the heat well – the really big willows have lost all their big branches and just have new shoots coming up the bottom now. Richardsonii growing strong though! There were signs of drought damage all around…we will continue watering.”
Perhaps our gamble will still pay off after all. We already have many years of great data, and many willows still alive (for now). And of course, this is itself great data: climate change may help tundra shrubs grow fast and tall – but extreme events could finish many of them off. As with so many questions of science, the excitement is in the discovery.
Meanwhile, a huge thanks to this years’ field team, and particularly to Sian and Lance at Kluane Lake for all your watering.
And now I’m off to check the bookie’s odds for rain.