The Team Shrub remote field season

This year is a year unlike any other. In 2020, our best laid plans of fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic were overturned by a global pandemic. Field scientists around the world had to halt their field programs, creating gaps in decades-long datasets. But safety first, along with beauty and fun, is the Team Shrub motto and the safety of the northern communities in which we work is paramount, so we have decided to plan an entirely new type of field season – a remote one. The pandemic has brought us working from home, online lab meetings, online talks and conferences, can we also have a remote field season? Can we address our field research goals (or some of them) from our existing data and anything being collected by satellites in the summer of 2020? With this blog post, we will share our Team Shrub 2020 remote field season.

The new mode of conducting collaborative remote field research involves weekly lab meetings online rather than 24 hours together in a tiny cabin in the Arctic.

As the Robbie Burn’s poem states: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley” (translation: “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”). In 2020, funded through a NERC UK – Canada collaboration bursary with the Canadian Airborne Biodiversity Observatory project and Canadian and international partners, we were going to set out to test how microclimate influences plant productivity, phenology and biodiversity patterns across the landscape. But when the field plans were put on hold until 2021, we went back to the drawing board to ask which of our research questions we could still ask with our existing data and satellite remote sensing. During our remote field season, still funded by the NERC Arctic Office, we have a number of research goals summarised in the following research questions.

How do the following vary with microclimate in tundra ecosystems?

  1. Plant productivity – the tundra greenness derived from multipspectral drone data
  2. Plant phenology – the timing of leaf out, flowering and yellowing of leaves
  3. Spectral diversity – the variation in the light spectra reflected off of the land surface

Mapping tundra microclimates

Tundra plant responses to warming are influenced by the local climate conditions in which plants grow. Research to-date indicates that warmer and wetter microclimates are experiencing more vegetation change. If microclimate is a major driver of tundra plant responses to warming, we will need additional landscape-level information to make accurate future projections of Arctic vegetation change. Since we can’t get to the field in person, by compiling our existing data including temperature, active layer, soil moisture, phenocam, shrubrings, decomposition and drone data we can still tackle these questions. PhD student Elise’s research will address these questions in collaboration with the rest of Team Shrub and our other collaborators such as Anne, Gerte and Jeff. Perhaps, we can answer some of the mysteries of microclimate with our existing data and new analyses during our remote field season.

This somewhat psychedelic image is the microclimate of tundra plants. Using drone imagery, Elise is estimating the microclimate for tundra plants on Qikiqtaruk using the Microclima package. South-facing slopes are warming and lower ground is usually wetter. But, how does this variation influence the growth of tundra plants?

Gauging tundra greening

Last summer through the Greening Arctic project, we mapped island-scale tundra greenness using drones and the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment project airborne data collection. Now we can compare the greenness derived from satellites with tundra microclimates to understand what controls where the greenest parts of the landscape are and how that greenness is captured by sensors on drones, planes and satellites across spatial scales. The remote field season team and Jeff and our collaborators through the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network project are working to answer this very question with our data from our field site on Qikiqtaruk on the Arctic coast of the Yukon and other locations around the Arctic.

Flying drones across the tundra in 2019 to map out tundra greenness across the landscape. (photo credit: Gergana Daskalova)

Inspecting the tundra hyperspectrally

Our research goals for the field season of 2020 were to conduct the main Arctic field season of the CABO project. We were going to capture tundra vegetation from leaves to landscapes using hyperspectral data. That field work will move to 2021 (we hope), but luckily through the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project flights in 2019 and some preliminary data collection from 2018 and 2019, we can begin to explore how hyperspectral data relate to tundra microclimates and plant biodiversity. This work will form the basis of future Team Shrub research by our starting PhD students in 2020 and through collaborations with the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network, CABO and NASA ABoVE projects. We are hoping that our remote field season will provide a head start on the data collection in 2021.

The flight lines for the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment data collection on Qikiqtaruk in 2019. With these and on the ground data we can begin to explore how tundra plant communities and biodiversity can be detected using hyperspectral data beyond what is visible to the naked eye.

Photographing tundra phenology

From 2016 to 2019 – and hopefully also in 2020 if the batteries last and the muskox behave – we have been setting out time-lapse cameras across the landscape to capture plant phenology. These so-called phenocams provide a high temporal resolution record of the day-to-day and even hour-to-hour changes of plants. We can measure the exact moment that a bud bursts, a flower opens or the tips of the leaves turn yellow each summer giving us a really precise picture of how tundra plants grow across the two-month long Arctic summers. During our remote field season, Joe and Maude have been going through the accumulated phenocam data identifying each moment that the plants leaf out, flower and senesce over time. We can then test how the plant phenology is influenced by the microclimates in which the plants grow, to help us to better understand phenology change with climate warming. Will a bear or muskox show up in the previous years’ phenocam data? – it looks like they have!

Meet the remote field team

Our remote field season will be led by first year PhD student Elise and Team Shrub field assistants Shawn and Maude, Isla is on standby to help with logistics, Team Shrub alumni Joe and external collaborator Ali have signed up as well for our virtual trip to the Arctic Coast of the Yukon through data. Some participants even get to go to a field site in Arctic Sweden this summer such as co-supervised PhD student Gerte! Our remote field season crew has been trying to live the life of the field ecologists from our pandemic locations. As Joe says: “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”. And clearly based on our dress, we would rather be off in the Arctic doing fieldwork!

Joe measuring tundra plant phenology remotely using time-lapse camera data from his kitchen table – I guess it can be quite cold even indoors during the Scottish summer.

In August, through quarantines and perseverance, Isla actually made it north to the Yukon. Not as far as Qikiqtaruk and our Arctic site, but on a visit to the Outpost Research Station in the Kluane Region of the Southern Yukon. There she visited the seven-year long common garden experiment where we are exploring the limits of growth of tundra willows when released from their cold tundra environments into the much warmer Boreal forest. This year has been a rainy and cool summer in the Southern Yukon, unlike the Arctic heatwave in Siberia, which is very much to the taste of the tundra willows, and they have continued to grow beyond expectations. In just seven years, some shrubs are over two metres in diameter and over half a metre tall. Other shrubs are just eking out an existence Arctic-style by keeping their annual growth to a minimum. From the air you can see the variation in growth among these Arctic and alpine willows. In the remote field season, we can compile all seven years of data and begin to write up our results of how tundra shrubs might be expected to respond as the Arctic warms up to temperatures beyond the current day conditions. Thanks to Amaya, Judy and Iain for help with the data collection!

The common garden in 2020 with Isla waving for scale. Some of those shrubs are turning into monsters in the oldest beds of the garden planted in 2013. How big will they get? Only time will tell. (photo credit: Iain Myers-Smith)

This summer, the Team Shrub adventures are a bit different than in the past. But we’ll keep you posted on our research progress and regale you with stories of a remote field season. With far fewer mosquitoes and maybe more sedentary research adventures, we hope the research achievements will be just as exciting! Stay tuned to hear about our 2020 remote field season findings.

If you want to hear more about our research and our remote field season plans check out this podcast!
Arctic Adaptation – An Interview With Dr. Isla Myers-Smith

If you want to read more about our recent drone research check out this article published this week!
Drones Help Bridge the Gaps in Assessing Global Change

Photo credit: Iain Myers-Smith

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