Myers‐Smith, I. H., M. M. Grabowski, H. J. D. Thomas, S. Angers‐Blondin, G. N. Daskalova, A. D. Bjorkman, A. M. Cunliffe, J. J. Assmann, J. Boyle, E. McLeod, S. McLeod, R. Joe, P. Lennie, D. Arey, R. Gordon, and C. Eckert. 2019. Eighteen years of ecological monitoring reveals multiple lines of evidence for tundra vegetation change. Ecological Monographs 00(0):e01351. 10.1002/ecm.1351
14th March 2019
The Arctic is warming rapidly, and tundra plants are responding. Research published this week in the journal Ecological Monographs of the Ecological Society of America documents how tundra ecosystem responds to warming in the Canadian Arctic. “To understand what is causing observed ecosystem changes, we need to team up and build a long-term perspective” says Dr. Isla Myers-Smith from the University of Edinburgh who led the study.
This research stems from a unique collaboration and a nearly two-decade-long ecological monitoring program that brings together university researchers, government scientists and local park rangers to study tundra vegetation change over time on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, on the Arctic Coast of the Yukon Territory, Canada.
The climate on Qikiqtaruk has been changing since ecological monitoring began at the site in 1999:
• Temperatures have warmed, increasing by over 2˚C.
• Snow and sea ice are melting earlier and the ocean is refreezing later.
• The yearly period between snow melting and returning again is around a week longer.
• The active layer, the thawed soil above the permafrost, has deepened by as much as 20 cm.
The study’s findings indicate that rapid vegetation change is underway on Qikiqtaruk:
• Shrub canopies are getting taller – shrubs have more than doubled in height in long-term monitoring plots since 1999.
• Plants are greening up earlier in spring and flowering earlier in the summer – with green up coming more than two weeks earlier over the past 18 years.
• The cover of tundra plants is increasing and bare ground is decreasing – plant cover has more than doubled and bare ground has decreased by more than half, nearly disappearing in some plots over the period of ecological monitoring.
These vegetation changes are likely due in part to the indirect, rather than only the direct effects of warming temperatures, such as a deepening of the thawed soil layer above the permafrost and increasing length of the growing season.
Richard Gordon, senior park ranger for Herschel Island – Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park and study co-author, states that: “The speed with which the climate is changing in the circumpolar region makes our observation work even more important. We have to ensure our monitoring continues to contribute towards good management decisions for parks and Arctic ecosystems as a whole.”
Ricky Joe, study co-author, who first became a Yukon Park ranger in 1999 states: “People are concerned that Qikiqtaruk is changing. It’s very different to what I saw when I first came here when I was 18… The changes are impacting people’s lives…”
Meagan Grabowski, study co-author who conducted an internship with Yukon Parks to improve the monitoring protocols says: “Because so few northern researchers are also northern residents, who observe the landscape year-round and are collecting a composite memory of ecological history, it is key to increase collaboration in all kinds of data collection and interpretation. The plant phenology program, in combination with the weather, snow, and wildlife monitoring on Qikiqtaruk, is an example of a bridge between people living in the North and people conducting research in the North.”
Dr. Isla Myers-Smith, head of the Team Shrub research group that have been working on Qikiqtaruk since 2008, states that: “The two-decade long ecological monitoring program on Qikiqtaruk is unique and one of the longest studies of its kind in the Arctic. It has been an amazing opportunity for my team to get to conduct scientific research on the island in collaboration with Yukon Parks, government scientists and other researchers. And it is only through this collaboration that we have been able to put together a picture of how this tundra ecosystem is changing as the climate warms.”
This project was funded by Yukon Parks, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) of the UK, Yukon Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Trust, Yukon College and the University of Edinburgh.
Isla Myers-Smith, University of Edinburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Richard Gordon, Yukon Parks (Richard.Gordon@gov.yk.ca)
Cameron Eckert, Yukon Parks (Cameron.Eckert@gov.yk.ca)
@TeamShrub, #TeamShrub, #Qikiqtaruk
Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe
Qikiqtaruk perspectives by ranger Edward McLeod
Qikiqtarukmiut – summary of an internship with Yukon Parks by Meagan Grabowksi
Photos, videos and captions
Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin
The ecological monitoring program on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island has been running since 1999 and is a product of collaborative research by academics, government scientists and local park rangers. Rapid change is underway on this Arctic island. Shrub canopies are getting taller, the timing of events in the lives of plants, such as first leaf out and first flower, is also shifting, and bareground is decreasing as shrubs and grass species are increasing in abundance. On Qikiqtaruk, we find that the vegetation changes are likely due to the indirect, rather than the direct, effects of climate change, such as the deepening of the active layer and the increasing length of the growing season. Only with long-term records such as these can we understand the rate and drivers of vegetation change at sites around the tundra biome.
Photos by unknown (1987) and Isla H. Myers-Smith (2017)
A picture can tell a thousand words and can be a very important data point. Vegetation change such as increases in shrubs are particularly dramatic in the Ice Creek watershed on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island. Repeat photographs from 2009 to 2018 can be compared to an original photograph from 1987 to document the extent and rate of changes in shrub cover in this part of the island. In recent years, we have complimented these images with drone surveys and time lapse photography to quantify how representative these changes are with other sites across the island and around the tundra biome.
Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin
Team Shrub collaborates with Yukon Parks rangers and other collaborators to study vegetation change on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic. Our research team is made up of early career researchers from the University of Edinburgh and people living and working in the Canadian North. Each summer, we come back from the field with lots of data and memories of exciting adventures, but also gratitude for the opportunity to be on Qikiqtaruk and experience this unique and rapidly changing ecosystem. To read more about our experiences in the Arctic, check out our blog https://teamshrub.com/lab-blog/
Photo by Mariana García Criado and Gergana N. Daskalova
A pin drops in the tundra, and then 11,999 more pin drops follow. Every year we monitor the composition and structure of plant communities on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, and one of our key tools is a thin metal pin flag. By recording each plant the pin touches every time we drop it, we can get insights into how plant communities are changing from one year to the next. Over nearly two decades, we have observed rapid change in these slow-growing tundra plant communities including the invasion of the grass species Alopecurus alpinus and Arctagrostis latifolia into the plots from the surrounding landscape. Data sets like this one, when synthesized with other long-term ecological monitoring, are helping us to understand how biodiversity is changing not only on Qikiqtaruk, but at sites around the tundra biome.
Photo by Jeffrey T. Kerby
Most of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island is underlain by ice-rich permafrost. The very top layer of this permafrost – the active layer – thaws during the summer and then re-freezes as winter approaches. Climate warming has been linked to a deepening of the active layer – each year more of the permafrost thaws, thus changing the conditions in which plants grow in the Arctic. To find out how active layer depth is changing, we use a metal probe to record how deep into the ground it goes before hitting ice. Over the last 20 years, active layer depth on Qikiqtaruk has almost doubled, which then goes on to alter the amount of nutrients available for plants to use, leading to changes in the vegetation communities on the island.
Photo by Anne D. Bjorkman
There is great beauty to be found when you get up close and personal with tundra plants. Here, the seeds of Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) twist as they develop. Once ripe, they straighten and feather outward to be carried away by the wind, dispersing to new environments across the tundra landscape. As temperatures warm, spring can come earlier and the phenology – the timing of when plants open their leaves, flower, set their seed or turn yellow – can shift too. Changing plant phenology influences interactions between the plants, their pollinators and the species that depend on these plants for food. From plants, to bumble bees to muskox and caribou – life in Arctic food webs are connected in complex ways.
Video by Noah Bell
Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island is a remote part of the Canadian Arctic, but also is located in the territory of the Inuvialuit people and has a long human history. The impressive tundra landscapes of the island are undergoing rapid change as the climate warms, sea ice retreats and permafrost thaws. And each summer, Qikiqtaruk is home to park rangers, government scientists and researchers working together to monitor and study this fragile tundra ecosystem.
Video by Isla Myers-Smith
Changing plant phenology – the timing of the green up of leaves and flowering of plants – is one of the plant responses to climate warming that we have been observing in the Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island monitoring program. Time lapse photography in addition to detailed observations every three days collected by park rangers allow us to track how the timing of flowering across the landscape is changing over time and with warming.