The Arctic at a second glance

Arctic landscapes are so vast, it is easy to miss the details at a first glance. In the windows of historic buildings or the flat calm water of the Arctic ocean, reflections provide unexpected perspectives on this place. This summer, I have returned to Qikiqtaruk to explore the hidden diversity of plants and how this diversity is being altered as the climate continues to warm. I am here in the Arctic to take that closer second look. To see the Arctic through the lens of my own experience.

Beyond the first glance

At a first glance, the Arctic is impressive and grand. Vast landscapes, sea ice shimmering in the sun and then disappearing into a fog as the winds turns the ocean from a perfect calm to an mighty storm. And across the land and sea – unique ecosystems that support some of the planet’s most iconic biodiversity – beluga whales, polar bears, caribou, muskox and more. At a second glance, however, you can look beyond the charismatic wildlife and vast landscapes, it is then that you spot the diversity underlying everything.

In June, sea ice surrounds Qikiqtaruk. Once the winds calm down and the sun lowers in the horizon at 69° latitude everything is doubled in reflections. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A hidden Arctic

This summer, I have returned to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, a Territorial Park in the Yukon in Canada. During my previous visits, I was lucky to have the chance to soak in the Arctic in all its grandeur – the comings and goings of the sea ice, the midnight sun bathing the tundra in hours of golden light, the caribou and the polar bears. Now, I am here to look up closer and discover what remains hidden across the tundra landscape. What is the biodiversity that has escaped the sights of scientists for decades? How is Qikiqtaruk seen through the eyes of the people that have lived here for centuries and those who, like me, are fortunate to visit? Just as the winds are shifting directions and the weather is turning once again on Qikiqtaruk, I will also shift my perspective – this time to some of the tundra’s stories that only come into focus if you go beyond quick impressions and first glances.

Shifting winds from the Southeast to the Northwest marked the onset of the windiest storm of the season so far. With 50-mile-per-hour winds holding us back in camp, the storm gave us time for contemplation of our trip so far. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

An unexpected diversity

At a first glance, the Arctic alternates between shades of white and green. For most of the year, white shades span land and sea as far as the eye can see. Clouds and fog make it hard to tell where land ends and sky begins. Then in summer, the tundra comes to life. Willows and other shrubs like my favourite dwarf willow with the melodic Latin name of Betula nana leaf out and cover the landscape in shades of green. Amidst the green, however, a second glance reveals numerous other plant species in a multitude of colours – grasses, forbs, lichens and mosses, bringing diversity to the sea of green. This is an unexpected diversity for a place with such a harsh climate. It is this more hidden diversity that I seek to uncover.

Shapes, colours and textures intermingle on the tundra floor, making for a vibrant palette one can easily miss from afar. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

An unexpected passion for plants

I never expected to be fascinated by Arctic plants. My first forays into nature revolved, perhaps predictably, around birds. Woodpeckers, to be specific. At the age of 11, I wanted to see as many woodpeckers as possible and hatched a complex plan to lure them into my grandparents’ garden with pig fat smeared on the bark of an old walnut tree. Though the woodpeckers were never that interested in the pig fat and our neighbors interpreted the actions as some sort of witchcraft, I didn’t give up. Eventually, I got to see many woodpeckers, and other birds too.

My love for Arctic plants is a more recent acquisition. On 22nd of June 2017, as I first stepped of the plane on Qikiqtaruk it was the blue forget-me-nots flowering around camp that first caught my eye. Unlike with birds, we know much less about the tundra’s plant communities. Plants are among the first to respond to environmental change, such as the rapid warming currently unfolding across the tundra biome. Yet, most tundra plants are far from conspicuous, making it hard to capture the full picture of exactly how climate change is reshaping the Arctic.

Standing just mere centimeters above the ground, the snow-bed willow (Salix polaris) is one of the Arctic’s species that are easily missed at a first glance across these tundra landscapes. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

A botanist’s toolkit

When it comes to discovering plants, there are some tools that have remained a constant part of the explorer’s toolkit over the centuries. The first tool is the quadrat – a square frame often one by one meter in size. Throw it (or rather place it gently) across as many sites as possible, record all plants that fall within the frame, their abundance, height, life stage and more, and you get a detailed snapshot of Arctic plants. Do that at the same sites over time, and you can track change. Are certain species becoming more dominant whilst others are dwindling and perhaps even disappearing all together?

The second tool is much less bulky to pack but takes longer to develop – a pair of observant eyes, trained to notice subtle details about different species. Walk across the tundra, for hours, for miles, for as long as you can, record every plant that you see along the way, perhaps collect a few specimens for a herbarium record – a pressed plant specimen for museum collections – and you get a wider picture of plant communities. The area you cover is greater, but because you have to keep going, you can’t do the detailed measurements you’d do if you focused on a specific quadrat. This summer, I am combining the age-old tools of plant discovery but also bringing in drones to capture as much of the landscape as possible and provide the environmental context for biodiversity change observations on Qikiqtaruk.

Collecting herbarium specimens, even of species I have encountered often over the years, can reveal some surprises for me. Here, my surprise comes from below ground. Digging out a specimen of the bistort (Polygonum bistorta) reveals to me that this species forms bulbs. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

A tundra full of surprises

I’ve been on Qikiqtaruk for just over two weeks now. Though it is still too early for the biodiversity monitoring to begin, we’re waiting for peak biomass! I have been scanning the ground and looking for plants on our hikes. There is a sense of comfort in knowing the name of each plant that crosses your path – like catching up with old friends. But I did also wonder – will I get to see a plant species here I’ve never encountered before?

Day by day I was rediscovering many of the plants I had observed on my previous visits to Qikiqtaruk, but none that I hadn’t seen before. And then, just as I was filming a colourful carpet of tundra flowers, I noticed a plant swaying in the wind not quite like all the others around it. With large white bell-shaped flowers and pointed pairs of leaves, this was a species whose name I could not think of on the spot. A species that I hadn’t seen before.

Knowing that I am still discovering new species, after I have already spent many days looking for plants, makes me think – how many more species lurk across the landscape, escaping our sight? And what kind of species are they? Do the species that are part of the part of the plant communities here, but haven’t been recorded inside our long-term quadrats over almost 20 years of monitoring have anything in common? And what can this so called “dark diversity” tell us about how Arctic ecosystems are changing if we shine the spotlight on it?

This time, tundra surprises came in the form of a delicate yellow flower – Cerastium maximum. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A time for reflection

Here on Qikiqtaruk life pulsates to a rhythm of its own. Our schedules are packed with work at both ends of the day – capturing the peak light of the day when flying drones and the low angled light of the night for photography. Life here rarely rests – an island beyond time. But when the wind, fog and rain disrupt the best laid plans, there is time to reflect. I have been thinking more and more about what emerges when you pause, listen, and observe carefully. When you don’t turn away after the first glance but keep on looking.

The Pauline Cove settlement on Qikiqtaruk is a place perfect for reflections – both literally and figuratively. Calm waters and sunny days bend the light, creating almost perfect reflections, like this one in the window of the island’s workshop. And when the winds pick up and the rain and fog return, we can pause to reflect. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

Words by Gergana Daskalova

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