Where does a journey begin? We haven’t had a full field season for three years. Due to a little-known virus called COVID-19 we’ve had to wait until 2022. In a sense, the journey that takes us here to this field season began many years ago. But for some, the journey only started only a few short months ago when they applied to join the team. However you look at it, this year in 2022 we are a new team together on a new adventure.
And where are we going on this adventure? Team Shrub is spending the summer across the Yukon Territory from the Kluane Region in the south, to Tombstone in the Central Yukon up to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island on the Yukon North Slope. For some of us this adventure takes place in our own backyards, others have never been as far as now from their hometown. In this blog post, we’ll introduce you to the 2022 Team Shrub Field Crew and the journey that we have taken to get here – to Kluane Lake in the Yukon.
We’re a team of ten intrepid researchers hailing from the University of Edinburgh, Université de Sherbrooke and Yukon University. What brings us to the Yukon this summer is a love of plants, a fascination with the way the world works and a lack of fear of biting insects and super cold water. Together, we’re here to understand how plants respond when the climate warms, but we’re exploring that topic from all angles this summer using hyperspectral sensors, drones, time-lapse cameras, clippers and measuring tapes.
We’re trying to piece together a complex puzzle: from how individual plants respond as the climate warms, through to how plant and animal species interact with each other, up to how we can spot changing tundra landscapes from space. Across the summer, in these blog posts we’ll try to paint a picture of the systems we are studying and the things that we are finding as we battle the bugs, car troubles and belated shipments to conduct our research.
Each field season is its own journey and this field season has started with some unexpected hiccups. When we first arrived in Whitehorse and were running around town our vehicle started making a subtle beeping noise. “What is that?”, we asked ourselves, “maybe the check oil indicator”, a little while later Joe pulled me aside and said: “Isla, there is a screw poking out of our tire”. Now that we knew what the problem was – a rapidly flattening tire – we needed to figure out how to solve the problem.
After stops and calls to most of the tire stores in town we found by word of mouth ‘The Tire Guy’ who sorted us out with a fix of the flat, but also discovered that we had another problem tire. So then it was back to Canadian tire to purchase two new tires, an extra night in Whitehorse for me and a near full tire switch to get new tires on to replace the damaged ones. The vehicle still needs some other sorting out in the long-term, but for now we are back on the road for the rest of our field journey. And what a journey it should be with a crew of 10 people working at field sites across the Yukon on questions as broad as how are tundra growing seasons shifting with climate change, to what controls the growth of boreal forest shrubs or tundra shrubs growing in a boreal forest environment, to how to the traits and functions of plants vary across elevational and latitudinal gradients, through to how we can observe tundra biodiversity and greening from space.
If you ask my friends, I haven’t stopped talking about Canada since I returned to Scotland from an exchange to the University of Calgary in 2015. I’ve been stoked to get back to Canada ever since and I can’t think of a better way to do it than a field season in the mountains surrounding Kluane Lake in the Yukon! Before I could hop on a plane (or three) and make it to the field – I had to send the Team’s scientific kit ahead of me, which turned out to be more of a challenge than I was expecting.
It turns out DHL is an acronym for ‘Doesn’t Handle Lithium’ and the shipment boomerang-ed back to me with ‘too many batteries’ written on all the boxes. This began a frantic lithium treasure hunt to remove the elusive and sometimes very tiny batteries that seemed to be the problem and re-ship everything before I departed Scotland. Eventually, the shipment departed – fingers crossed we see it soon! After months of writing applications for Canadian drone permits, applying for equipment loans, and dealing an array of other miscellaneous team logistics, I’m delighted I’ve finally made it to Kluane, even if all of our shipment hasn’t yet due to unknown delays. I’m feeling very at home in the mountains (even with an overly warm welcome from the mosquitoes) and can’t wait to immerse myself in Yukon research, hiking, and cold water! And I can’t wait to start flying drones over melting snow patches to better understand tundra greening seen from space.
After finishing an ecology degree in Edinburgh a few months ago, I was super excited about this scientific expedition. I have always loved spending time outside but never spent more than two months in the field. This summer I am working as field assistant for Team Shrub, which will be my first big summer field season ever! After the initial excitement of knowing that the field season was happening, I started feeling slightly nervous.
Logistics, new equipment, not knowing what to expect, and mostly, doubting my ability to do the job. Once we arrived to Vancouver, we were welcomed by beach weather and ice-cream which alleviated any leftover stress – there’s only excitement left! Spending months researching tundra plant vegetation change for my undergraduate dissertation was a great experience, but I am thrilled to finally see the ecosystem I have only read about until now! As field assistants, we are here to help with any project from Team Shrub or our collaborators. With the amount of projects to work on, we will certainly not get bored! I am also hoping to find inspiration for a Master’s project. And the best tip for fieldwork? Don’t have any expectations, go with the flow!
My taxi driver at Vancouver airport told me that I’d have a hard time doing research because there are no plants in the Arctic. This summer, I am on a mission to prove him wrong.
This should have been the third full summer field season of my PhD – but it turns out to be the first! Out of the sleepy lull of lockdowns and travel cancellations, this summer’s field adventures have been a blast to help to organise (over the past three years)!
From trialing my field methods for the NERC-funded TundraTime Project including the above-and-below ground protocol in the snowy Cairngorms National Park, to obtaining my drone pilot licences, to organising international shipments for my collaborators, and much more, I’ve certainly been kept busy! This spring, I completed an internship with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Trondheim, and from there I hopped onto a plane to the UK for a fleeting visit and to grab my thermal long-johns and bug nets. Then I flew straight to the west coast of Canada for a few weeks in Kluane which will be followed by a month up on Qikiqtaruk. I can’t wait to learn more about these wonderful places and the phenology of those tundra plants and of course to embrace my old friends mosquitoes with open arms!
Having spent multiple seasons in the Colorado Rockies, I am not a stranger to field work – but every season is different! I arrived in the Yukon late one evening in a blaze of boarding passes, oversized bags, and an 18-hour Shakira-filled playlist. I may have been the last to arrive but as lead food coordinator, my joining the team was long awaited. Organising nine weeks-worth of food across the Yukon was a challenge, but turns out if you buy enough Country Time, Ritz crackers, and Oreos, you can keep a team of 10 pretty happy.
Conversely, if you make 10 pounds of tortellini in an evening, people may never let you live it down. Despite being North American, I now live in Edinburgh and have spent very little time in Canada, but I’m delighted to finally spend some time further north amongst the spectacular scenery of Kluane and the wider Yukon. I’ve taken some measurements, made millions of to-do lists, and swatted some mosquitoes, so I feel like I’m settling into the fieldwork just fine. I’ll be deep in the forests bushwhacking to get to Boreal shrubs in no time. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll be closer to understanding how they respond to variations in climate.
It feels great to be back in Yukon! After spending last summer here in Kluane, the place feels very familiar! There was a bit of stress leading up to our departure, but all things considered, Clara and I had a pretty smooth journey from Sherbrooke to Whitehorse, where we met up with the rest of the team. After almost two years of chatting on Zoom, it is a relief to finally meet the Edinburgh-based Team Shrub in person. Some are taller (Joe) than expected and some are smaller (Erica), but all are 10/10.
I’m very excited to show the team around the Kluane plateau, have a team dip in the lake and explore this wonderful region together! We’ve had a lot of fun so far and I’m excited to head up north soon for my postponed first Arctic field season as a part of the Canadian Airborne Biodiversity Observatory project. With hyperspectral sensors and cameras, scanners and balances were going to test how we can use information beyond what we can see with the eye to capture the biodiversity of tundra ecosystems and the properties of tundra plants. But first, we needed to collect the first of the common garden data of the season.
My journey to the Yukon started while watching a lecture on Arctic greening and the impacts on herbivores by Isla, something clicked. I got curious and investigated vegetation change in the Porcupine caribou habitat as my dissertation topic. I read papers about climate change, shrub encroachment, caribou diets, hoping that one day I’d get the chance to see a real caribou! Luckily, a job opportunity from Team Shrub popped up: a call for field assistants for the upcoming field season in the Yukon.
I couldn’t miss the opportunity! Once I got my application sent in, I started slightly panicking. Would I be up for the task? Self-doubt became even more real when I did get the job! A huge amount of logistical prep started piling up. Applying for funding, buying equipment, writing a project proposal to collect my own data. The next few months were a blur. Suddenly there I was on my very first long-haul flight. Excitement levels were over the roof – 11/10. After a few wobbles on the way, we finally made it to Kluane Lake. I had never seen such huge mountains and I can’t wait to experience more of this incredible place – despite having to karate my way out of mosquito clouds!
Having just finished the first year of my undergrad at Université de Sherbrooke, I am the baby of this year’s Team Shrub! I’ve travelled a ton(ne) around the southern Canadian provinces, but I had been looking for an excuse to explore the Great North within the Great White North. I was astounded when the opportunity to join Team Shrub fell within my reach after only two semesters studying ecology. I can’t wait to learn tundra ecology in the field with the team!
Madi, a few too many oversized bags and I were lucky to experience smooth sailing from Sherbrooke all the way to Whitehorse. Now, I am thrilled to be helping out on some amazing projects for this summer, here in the breath-taking mountainous landscape of Kluane and then on Qikiqtaruk later this summer. I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting first field season! Here to more bonfires on the beach.
The mountains of North Western Canada have long been a draw and the opportunity to spend a PhD summer working there was an opportunity far too good to pass up. I dove into the organisation and spent a spring swimming in permits, logistics and admin for far flung lands. After all of this anticipation and excitement, we’ve made it to the Yukon and are all settled in, accompanied by our adorable trio of resident ground squirrels – Chipchop, Jean Jacques and Roger.
A couple of days ago, we got the chance to hike up to the alpine on the Kluane Plateau and I got to see the tundra ecosystems that I’ll be studying for the very first time. The mountains of the Kluane region are just as if not more majestic than I was imagining. Time to get measuring, drone flying and climbing some hills to figure out how the diversity of tundra ecosystems and the functions that plants provide vary up mountains and across the Yukon.
My journey officially started as a kid growing up in the Yukon with close connections to the Kluane area. From my obsession with rocks and exposure to plants and animals from my elders, I was hooked with being out on the land and this continues to this day. This summer, I have just completed my BSc in Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences with the University of Alberta and Yukon University. My journey with Team Shrub started when an email fell into my inbox.
As a teenager, I dreamed to become a photographer for Nat Geo. This summer, I have the amazing opportunity supported by the National Geographic Society STEM field assistant program and see my home in a new capacity as a researcher! Leading up to the field season, my home served as port of arrival for many Team Shrub packages. This caused much confusion within my family: who was this mysterious Dr. Isla Myers-Smith? My photos about the state of snowmelt on the Kluane plateau allowed the team to get a general idea of what to expect. My knowledge of the Kluane region has made me a bit of a tour guide to this year’s eclectic group. I am very excited to join the Arctic crew to explore new horizons on Qikiqtaruk island this summer.
This is only the beginning of an exciting journey for Team Shrub. We hope it will be a journey of discovery, inspiration and scientific advancement. Most of us are very much out of our comfort zone, but having an amazing team helps to create the feeling of being at home in the field. There will be challenges ahead, but we are ready to tackle them!
Words and photos by Team Shrub