The science behind our journey

The Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the globe and has already warmed by two degrees Celsius (nearly four degrees Fahrenheit) in the last half century. This warming is melting sea ice, thawing permafrost – permanently frozen ground – and changing the tundra environment. And as the tundra warms, plants are responding.

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Pondering permafrost and Arctic greening on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

In recent decades, scientists and people living around the Arctic have started to notice a much broader transformation and from space, the Arctic now appears much greener than it used to be. Making sense of how rapidly the tundra is changing is critical for understanding global climate change for the planet as a whole.

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This is what vegetation change can look like – increases in shrubs. Photos by Team Shrub.

While we are certain that the Arctic is changing, the scientific findings to date are also full of contradictions. For instance, not all satellites seem to agree on which areas are greening. In some places, satellites suggest big landscape changes, but they aren’t obvious on the ground – and vice versa. But satellite pixels can be as large as nearly 10,000 soccer fields and long-term monitoring plots can be as small as 1 x 1 m or the size of the surface of a card table. This is a massive scale gap!

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Drones are providing new tools to monitor changing Arctic landscapes. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

 

Is our understanding of Arctic change hampered by the fact that we aren’t collecting data at the most useful scales to connect the dots between warming and plant responses? Drones will allow us to bridge this gap to disentangle how tundra ecosystems are responding to climate warming across these frozen landscapes.

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Tundra ecosystems are surprisingly diverse given the only two-month long summer. Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. Scientists have been monitoring plots across the landscape for over two decades to track the rate of this biodiversity change.

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Meter-squared plots are how vegetation change has previously been monitored across the Arctic. Photo by Mariana García Criado and Gergana Daskalova.

But what about the species found outside of plots? How many species have escaped the notice of scientists over time – the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity? Will uncovering this so called “dark diversity” influence our estimates of how tundra biodiversity will change in the future?

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Team Shrub pictured here in 2018 is heading back to the Arctic this summer. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Team Shrub has been working for over 10 years to figure out how high latitude ecosystems are responding to the rapidly warming climate. In the summer of 2019, we’re heading back to the Yukon Arctic Coast and Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island to study the rapidly changing Arctic. This year’s team is made up of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Purdue University. Our research will identify the hotspots of change across the landscape that satellite and long-term yet small-scale observations might be missing.

Let the science and the adventures begin!

By Isla Myers-Smith

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