Team Shrub’s 2022 journey to the Yukon

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

Willow – a sequel

In a time long ago (or only a few years ago, depending on how you look at it) in land far, far away (or close by depending on where you are reading this post from) tundra willows have been eking out an existence on the warmest edge of their environmental niche. Willows from the North and willows from the South, from high up in the mountains or out on the Arctic coast, are growing together in a common and warmer environment. But over the past eight long years, what has this adventurous yet labourious experiment taught us about the shrubification taking over tundra as the climate warms? Read on to find out.

In 2018, we wrote up a blog post providing some interim results about our tundra willow common garden experiment and we even made a movie trailer!

The trailer from our 2018 blog post about our common garden experiment entitled Willow. editing credit: Gergana Daskalova

But what is going on with the willows now? What have we learned from our eight-year long experiment. We will be working on writing up these results over the coming year, but we thought we could give you all a sneak preview in this blog post in the form of a mini scientific paper.


Tundra shrubs take over when moved down mountains,

but not AS much when Moved south


Tundra shrubs grow rapidly in warmer conditions,

but local alpine willows outpace northern Arctic willows


Tundra shrubs can grow rapidly in warmer environments reaching heights as high as over a metre in less than eight years of growth. However, Arctic tundra willows don’t grow as fast as local alpine willows when grown in a warmer environment in the boreal forest. This suggests that tundra shrubs genetically vary across latitudes in the timing of their growth, the way that they grow and the size to which they grow. And that we should expect rapid, but not uniform rates of shrub expansion across the tundra biome with warming.

The common garden!


A major unknown in tundra ecology is whether shrubs will rapidly respond to changing climate conditions or whether plants are genetically adapted to their current environment, thus limiting future vegetation change. We designed a tundra willow common garden experiment to investigate the variation in tundra shrub growth across the Yukon Territory.

Our Research Question:

How does growth vary in southern alpine versus northern Arctic willows when grown in a common and warmer environment?


We collected willows from the alpine tundra of the Kluane Region (61°N) to the arctic tundra of the Yukon North Slope (70°N) and planted them in a warmer boreal forest environment.

The tundra ecosystems have average summer temperatures of around 10°C and growing seasons of around 60 days whereas the boreal forest site has temperatures of around 15°C and a growing season of closer to 80 days. We established the garden in 2013 and planted willows each year until 2018.

The garden is planted with three species: Salix pulchra (diamond-shaped willow) and Salix richardsonii (Richardson’s willow) and Salix arctica (Arctic willow) from the Kluane Region and Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.

The willows were planted across the garden in different beds to account for variation in the microtopography and soil conditions within the garden.

The common garden experiment from the air. photo credit: Iain Myers-Smith


Here are the headline findings including the latest data from the 2021 field season:

  • Tall willows from the alpine and same latitude grew faster and taller than willows from 1000 km to the north in the Arctic. The alpine plants from the two tall willow species were 2 to 6 times taller and twice to three times as fast as the Arctic plants reaching average heights of 1 m and growing at rates of on average 5 cm and up to 20 cm per year in eight years since planting.
Figure 1. Difference in willow growth between species for the two different willow source populations the Kluane alpine (green) and Qikiqtaruk Arctic tundra (blue) for all willows that remain alive in the experiment with age (top plots) and in 2021 (bottom plots).
  • The tall willows from the Arctic have smaller and lighter leaves with a greater specific leaf area (the ratio of area to mass) relative to the alpine willows. The leaves from the Arctic plants are four times smaller and lighter than the alpine willows.
Figure 2. Difference in willow traits including height and leaf traits between species for the two different willow source populations the Kluane alpine (green) and Qikiqtaruk Arctic tundra (blue) in the common garden (bright colours) when compared to data from the source locations (faded colours). Common garden leaf trait data are from 2017 and canopy heights are from 2021, source location data are from 2013 – 2017.
  • The dwarf willow species Salix arctica from the alpine and Arctic have grown equally well with no difference in canopy height, plant size or growth rates. The size of the plants and their leaves is similar between the Arctic and alpine plants after six years since planting.
Measuring the height of Salix arctica (arctic willow). photo credit: Gergana Daskalova
  • Arctic willows don’t grow for as long as alpine willows each summer. The leaves tall Arctic willows start to turn yellow in mid-July each year, three weeks earlier than the alpine willows.
An Arctic willow in the common garden experiment turning yellow in mid July with green alpine willows behind it.

So what does this all mean and why does it matter? How can the findings from this experiment help us understand tundra shrubification with climate change?


Through this experiment, we now know that rates of shrub growth can be very rapid in a warmer boreal forest environment. Growth rates in the experiment were more rapid than we currently see in willows growing in warming tundra locations with shrub heights reaching over a metre in only eight years – that is more than 10 cm of vertical growth per year! That is pretty rapid when compared to the couple of centimetres of growth seen in naturally growing Arctic and alpine tundra willows.

We also found that willows from the north that are moved south are genetically adapted to the midnight sun and different light conditions up north. In Kluane, the willows from the Arctic begin to change colour in the middle of the summer and the willows are not able to grow for as long. Those northern willows grew more slowly and reached smaller plant sizes across the experiment in the two tall willow species that we studied, but surprisingly not in the third dwarf willow species Salix arctica.

Salix arctica is one of the most widely distributed tundra willows and grows as far north as the top of Ellesmere Island and Greenland at over 80°N. For this species, growth rates were similar between the Arctic and alpine plants suggesting that some willow species might be better able to take advantage of changing environmental and light conditions even when moved long distances.

Salix arctica on Ellesmere Island. photo credit: Anne Bjorkman


The take-home message is that tundra shrubs can grow very rapidly in a warmer environment, and thus we should expect further rapid shrub expansion with climate warming. But, we shouldn’t necessarily expect different shrub species to respond in the same ways north to south across the tundra biome. Shrubs that are adapted to their local conditions and are also able to take advantage of the warming climate will likely respond most rapidly. And there could be some surprises in store with future shrubification where the species that we least expect, like the cold-loving dwarf willow Salix arctica, could potentially thrive the best under changing climate conditions.

Meticulous measurement collection in the common garden experiment. video credit: Noah Bell


Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the countless hours it has taken to set up and maintain this experiment over the past eight years. It has been and continues to be a labour of love! Garden party to celebrate anyone?

By Isla with 2021 common garden data collected by Madelaine and Beth

Written for the 2021 Yukon University Northern Studies Field Methods Course

A common garden tea party!

The field season is here and this time with a difference

It is that time of year again! Planning, long lists, permit applications, equipment purchases, travel bookings and eventually the packing of bags… Team Shrub is heading North and back to the Arctic, but this time with a difference…

This year our team is supported by National Geographic explorer grants and the UK Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) Arctic Office to capture Arctic change beyond the local scales at which scientists usually monitor. Our expedition will support two main projects:

The Greening Arctic project led by Isla Myers-Smith will capture island-scale tundra greening patterns in collaboration with the NASA Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment and the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network.


The Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity project led by Gergana Daskalova will discover the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity beyond long-term monitoring plots in collaboration with the International Tundra Experiment.


We will be joined by scientist/photographer Jeff Kerby, drone pilot Luke Hull, biologists Kayla Arey and our collaborators at Yukon Parks, and supported by the rest of Team Shrub from afar.

To launch our expeditions, we have built Open Explorer sites. Enter your email in the “Follow” field to sign up to follow our adventures. We would love to have you along for the journey!

The Greening Arctic

The Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity

Please also follow us at, on open explorer and via facebook, twitter (@TeamShrub & @gndaskalova) and Instagram.

To read about the background behind these projects check out our Open Explorer posts, here are teasers, link through to read the rest:

The Greening Arctic – “Every summer in the Arctic, a dark frozen landscape rapidly transforms into a vibrant tundra ecosystem rich with plants and wildlife. This remarkable yet brief transition from 24-hour darkness to midnight sun creates a tundra teaming with life which has drawn scientists north for decades… The Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the globe and has already warmed by two degrees Celsius 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… the Arctic is becoming greener…

The Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity – “The Arctic is changing in striking ways, but change in the Arctic is not always obvious – in fact, sometimes it is hidden. Amidst shrubs, tucked behind stones and often surviving in the most improbable of places, many tundra plants remain unnoticed by scientists. Discovering this hidden biodiversity can help us understand how life on Earth is being altered at its northernmost extremes… To understand these shifts in tundra ecosystems, we need to look beyond the plots and capture the landscape context of biodiversity change – all the species lurking just outside of the plots…. This so-called “dark biodiversity” can be the hidden source of future biodiversity change in the Arctic that might then go on to influence how the entire ecosystem functions…

To meet the full team check out our teaser bios here and read more on Open Explorer:

Isla Myers-Smith – “I’m Isla Myers-Smith, a global change ecologist from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I study plants in the Arctic and beyond and how ecosystems are responding to climate change. I work with my research group Team Shrub using all sorts of tools from measuring tapes to drones to capture Arctic change that we are seeing first hand at our Yukon field site Qikiqtaruk and around the tundra biome. What brought me to the Arctic over a decade ago was the promise of adventure and my curiosity about tundra responses to a warmer climate. I can’t wait to return this summer to add another piece to the puzzle of understanding Arctic greening!…”


Gergana Daskalova – “I’m Gergana Daskalova and my motivation for exploring the Arctic stems from my love for heading off into the unknown in search of new discoveries and being part of a larger community with a common mission. These two passions of mine have been common threads throughout my life, and on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic, they come together. I didn’t expect to ever see the Arctic with my own eyes, yet now it feels natural to be eagerly awaiting my third summer in the tundra…


Kayla Arey – “My name is Kayla (Nanmak) Arey. I am Inuvialuit from Aklavik Northwest Territories. I am also a scientist, with a degree in Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences. Arctic research and engagement of traditional knowledge are essential for stakeholders to make informed decisions regarding the management of Arctic ecosystems. This is so important to me because the Arctic is more than landscapes and animals, it is my home, and my community…


Jeff Kerby – “I’m Jeff Kerby. Extreme weather and climate have spurred incredible adaptations in Arctic plants and wildlife, while also shaping the region’s deep human history. This diversity of extremes initially drew me to the north as a biologist a decade ago, but now rapid Arctic warming threatens to reshape these stories. I’m excited to return to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island this summer to collaborate with Team Shrub by using photography for two purposes: 1. as a scientific tool, continuing my work as a fellow at the Dartmouth Institute of Arctic Studies, 2. and to tell stories, building on my experiences as a National Geographic photographer, by sharing perspectives on Arctic science, climate, and life in a globally important region as it transforms in front of (and often beneath!) us…


Luke Hull – “I’m Luke Hull, a certified drone pilot and an undergraduate student at Purdue University majoring in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), part of the school of aviation. The course of studies includes construction, operations and data analysis of unmanned systems solutions as well as general aviation operations and aircraft maintenance. My passion for unmanned systems, combined with my love for the outdoors, has sparked my interest in working with and creating innovative solutions for unmanned aerial systems in different environmental applications…


Our field plan list items are turning from red – needs doing urgently – to green – all done. Packages are arriving one by one and our shipment of gear is making its way from Edinburgh to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. And very soon in less than two weeks the field team will also be making our way north – first to Whitehorse and Kluane, and then on to Inuvik and on the 5th of July out to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.

With months of preparation, sometimes it feels like quite the journey just getting to this point when the field season actually begins. But, the real adventures are yet to come. What will the field season have in store for us??? Only time will tell.



Words by Isla Myers-Smith, imagery by Gergana Daskalova, photography by Jeffrey Kerby, Gergana Daskalova and Sandra Angers-Blondin

Collaboration is Key for Arctic Change Research


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.

Contact information

Isla Myers-Smith, University of Edinburgh (
Richard Gordon, Yukon Parks (
Cameron Eckert, Yukon Parks (

Additional information,,,

@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


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.

Welcome to the Arctic, welcome to the real world

For the past several summers, I have set the following message on my Skype account: “Sigh. I’m back from the Arctic and back to the real world”. But this summer, I switched things up. The message now reads: “I’m off to the Arctic and off to the real world. Yay!” The Arctic is very much the real world, more real than the rest of my life perhaps, and here’s why.


In the Arctic, life focuses around the daily routine – meals, fieldwork, what to pack in your bag – warm clothes, snacks, drone equipment, etc. And what sets that daily routine is the weather, wildlife and the Earth’s elements in all forms. What does it matter when the work day starts if it is windy and raining and you can’t do the work you need to do. But equally if the sunshine and light winds come at any time, morning, noon and night, you need to be ready to get out there! For the last four days, the weather has been holding us back.

Fog enshrouds the tundra on our final days on the island.

Update Monday 8:20 AM, 13th August 2018: Today, we are here on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island – on the day we were meant to fly out of the island and back to that supposed “real world”. Low clouds have been whipping past the island and there has been some drizzle. Not the ideal conditions for a plane flight. Our bags are packed and we are mostly ready to go, but we are on hold waiting for the weather and for the next available slot for the charter plane to pick us up, supposedly tomorrow at 5pm.

We had an epic day of data collection out at Slump D to get high resolution 3D models of the thawing slump with an added bonus of thermal data collected with a FLIR Duo R sensor – images of the temperature of the surface to help us understand how slumps thaw. That took us a good six hours of flying with two drone teams and two drone platforms – a Phantom 4 Advanced multicopter and an FX-61 Delta fixedwing. Surprisingly, the weather did not deteriorate that day as it often does when you head out in the boat to go to the farther away sites and we managed to get all the data collected.

Here are some of those very data. On the top left you can see the same part of Slump D in mid July and early August. The slump head wall has thawed a bit and the snow patches are smaller. Below you can see this same bit of slump in the four spectral bands of the Parrot Sequoia sensor – red, green, red edge and infrared. Different features of the tundra landscape are visible across these spectral bands – this is the information that we will extract to understand how rapidly these systems are thawing.

The last few days of the field season were not as epic. Team “Resting Drone” as we now call ourselves attempted to collect the last of our multispectral drone data. We hiked out to one of our focal research sites Collinson Head (Nuvuruaq) with all of our drone equipment – three drones and very heavy bags full of batteries and warm clothes. And then we spent all day out on the tundra waiting – on the first day for the winds to die down, and on the second day in the still calm winds for the fog to blow away.

Sadly, the weather did not cooperate and no drone data were collected. With periodic storms coming in the month of August, that was our last window for drone flying and without the stars aligning, the end of season multispectral data could not be collected. Sigh!!! At least there were some multispec data from the 3rd of August, which wasn’t that long ago. Sometimes it is hard to come to terms with the elements dictating which data get collected and when. All I wanted was one more day of late season drone data out at Collinson Head, our long-term monitoring site where we track the seasonal changes in the vegetation, but it was not to be.

Team Drone (aka Team Restless Falcon) in an optimistic looking phase on our way to Slump D.

Team Resting Drone in a less optimistic phase trying to keep our hopes up that the fog might clear!

Update Tuesday 8:20 AM, 14th August 2018: Every morning we call in to provide a weather check for the pilots at Aklak Airlines. As I said in my sat phone call, now it is very windy with up to 50+ km/hr gusts of winds from the west to northwest. The ceiling height is variable with some low cloud around at 400 ft. Again, not ideal for the plane. Maybe the twin otter will be able to get us this evening?

It isn’t too windy to go collect markers though, so we head out across the tundra to deconstruct the remaining drone plots that we optimistically left in place in case we could fly the drones. It is beautiful out there with the tundra just starting to turn from green to golden brown. It is a late year for plant phenology – the timing of the greening, flowering and yellowing of the plants. In 2018, the plants greened up about two to three weeks later than in recent years, back to the timing of the growing season from the late 90s and early 2000s. This year has been a cold year across the Canadian Arctic. Having that variation in when the plants are growing from year to year will help us understand and quantify how plants might respond as the Arctic continues to warm.

Can you spot the differences in these photos from the same places on the same date, the 25th of July, in 2017 versus 2018?

The differences might appear subtle, but in 2018, there are still lots of flowers visible at both sites and there is maybe less of a brown hue to the tundra leaves in 2018 relative to 2017.

Update Tuesday 4:00 PM, 14th August 2018: The weather has improved! But unfortunately, the pilots are stuck in Cambridge Bay in the Central Arctic. No flight for us today. Maybe first thing tomorrow. Time for a very long call on the sat phone to reschedule our flights, but worry not Air North, Yukon’s Airline is the best airline ever! We get our ticket changes all sorted.

The other thing that makes the Arctic just as real as the rest of our lives are the people. When you are on a remote Arctic island, your family and friends feel very far away, but equally you have a new community right there with you – the people on the island. Local people, “research neighbours”, park rangers, government workers, tourists – all the islanders join together to become a part of the overall experience that is far more interactive than many of the relationships we form in our modern lives. These are the people you eat with, chat with, share a wildlife sighting with, see every day and who share in the same daily routine set by nature’s elements.

An island feast bringing together researchers, rangers and the 2018 Qikiqtaruk Elders and Youth Program.

The crew on Qikiqtaruk at the end of the season as Team Shrub was leaving.

The wind has died down, we can fly drones again – but we only have one evening left and the drone gear is all packed. So, we go for the final coastal erosion flight that we were also hoping to collect as those data can be collected in the evening and don’t involve too much unpacking. The sun comes out and low angle golden light bathes Simpson Point (Kuvluraq) and Pauline Cove (Ilutaq) and the flood plain. When the Arctic is this epically beautiful, I am even less keen to leave!!! We collect the data and have time for a final sauna and dip in the Arctic Ocean in addition to finishing all of the final packing. Will we be off tomorrow? Only time will tell.

The inviting sight as you return to camp of a smoke rising from the Sauna.

Update Wednesday 8:20 AM, 15th August 2018: The skies are clear over the mountains and towards Inuvik. The ceiling height above the island is at least 1000 ft. The winds have died down and the seas are calm. There is no fog. Great conditions for a plane fight – and for flying drones, but the drones will have to wait for next year because the plane is on its way in less than two hours. Time to do/re-do the final packing, cleaning and to lug our bags out to the runway.

In the distance along the strip, we see one of the male muskox ambling along and when we look closer with him we see the fox. It looks like the fox is teasing the muskox, jumping around near its ankles. If only we didn’t have to pack and get our stuff to the airstrip, we could watch this wildlife encounter unfold properly. Instead we have to try to encourage that muskox to leave the strip before the plane comes!

A muskox running along the runway just before the plane is due to land.

Update Wednesday, 10:20 AM, 15th August 2018: The twin has landed. We load the plane and say our final goodbyes to the assembled island community. We take a last group photo and get on to the plane to take off and head back to the not-quite-so-real world away from the Arctic.

The twin otter in the air taking off after another successful summer of fieldwork.

Pauline Cove from the air – it doesn’t get much more real than this!

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, photos by Gergana Daskalova, Isla Myers-Smith and Noah Bell, video by Noah Bell

From West to East and Northwards to Ellesmere Island

It a really really long way from the Eastern to the Western Arctic. Via scheduled commercial routes, it would take me over three days of plane flights in a row to get from my one field site to the other this summer – I will not be trying it all in one go. Two days and over 14 hours of flying over six legs… and I am only as far north as the town of Resolute – still a stop away from the final three-hour charter flight out to Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island. This must be the farthest I have ever traveled only just making it out of one time zone, pretty much straight north from Ottawa to Resolute.

My travels from west to east to north across Canada to the High Arctic.

It is a long way to come for this field season in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. After the different parts of Team Shrub briefly united and then parted again in Vancouver, we are now separated by over a thousand kilometers on either site of the Canadian Arctic. PhD student Jakob, stayed back in Europe the far, far north of Europe and has just landed on Svalbard! So, why divide forces this year to send drone and plant research teams to three different parts of the Arctic – Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Yukon, Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut and Svalbard in Norway?

At a DEW (Distant Early Warning) line site! The DEW line connects the Arctic from West to East every 100 miles. Previously, we’ve seen some of its radar stations at Komakuk and Shingle Point near Qikiqtaruk!

This year on Team Shrub, we’re working to capture a biome-wide perspective on the question of what is causing the tundra greening as seen from satellites and how representative our long-term monitoring records are of vegetation change across the landscape as a whole. In addition to trying to unpick this biome-wide perspective on tundra greening, we want to understand the tundra browning side of the question too, and are continuing to capture the rates of permafrost thaw and coastal erosion. Here, on Team Ellesmere, my colleague Jeff Kerby from Dartmouth College and I are headed out to join the research group of Greg Henry from the University of British Columbia at Greg’s long-term ecological research site informally known as ‘Alex’. So, that’s why we’re headed – northeast (though west from Scotland still!) to the Eastern Canadian Arctic.

Sea ice along the Northwest passage – beautiful views along our flight!

Funded by the NERC UK-Canada Arctic Bursary Programme, the Royal Geographical Society, some gear from Jeff’s last National Geographic Society grant and with support from the Polar Continental Shelf Program, we’re equipped with three multicopter platforms and two fixed-wing platforms for each of the Yukon and Ellesmere Teams and a new thermal camera and RedEdge sensor from Micasense that literally arrived at the very last minute! Thanks to Emily at Micasense, Sandy from the UBC Geography Department and Cassandra for getting us that last piece of equipment! We are now poised to take off with our drones and capture the landscape perspective on tundra responses to climate change. That is if our drones aren’t too concerned about being this far North and much closer to the magnetic North Pole.

Even in really far away places, you can still spot human influences in the Arctic – if you look closely in the bottom right corner, you can spot barrels of fuel.

Being in a new part of the Arctic is a bit of a strange feeling. To feel somewhat at home in a place that I have never been to before, but also to feel the culture shock of a superficially similar, yet actually quite different environment to the places that I have been going each summer for fieldwork for the past decade or so. As I airport-hop up from Ottawa to Resolute via Iqaluit, Hall Beach, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay here are a few of the similarities and differences that stand out.

Sea ice and low growing vegetation – the Arctic views we are familiar with from our previous work in the West.

Here, in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, the airports look much the same. The commercial airline companies are different; First Air instead of Air North, but the charter company is still the familiar black and red twin otters of Ken Borek – here there is no subsidiary of Aklak Air though. One surprise for me is the 3G connectivity in the different Arctic communities – we could check up on the World Cup scores as we head North! Sad loss for England though.

Pond Inlet – a hamlet in Nunavut with lovely mountains as the backdrop.

There is Inuktitut spoken all around, which is both so similar in sound and somewhat different to Inuvialuktun, the language of the Western Arctic. To illustrate the similarities, umingmak versus umingmuk are the words for Muskox in the two languages for example. The villages have a similar feel and people are really friendly, but the views out the plane window are surprisingly different.

Murray the muskox – a wildlife encounter from our 2016 field season on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island.

The glacial history of the Eastern Arctic is unmistakable even to the eyes of an ecologist! Large striations and scrapes of the ice sheet are still visible everywhere you look. There are exposed and weather beaten hills and dramatic carved out fjords. Here, even though it is the second week of July, there are snow patches on land and sea ice in the water, and with white clouds above – the color pallet is more white and brown than green like out West.

Shades of brown still dominate the Arctic landscape in the East – the colder temperatures make for a later summer arrival.

There is no majestic Mackenzie River, no flat Yukon North Slope stretching as far as the eye can see and no trees dotting the landscape like just north of Inuvik. Here, the tundra vegetation appears more barren, eking out an existence on the exposed and windblown slopes. But, I have already seen some happy looking Salix arctic – the circumArctic willow species – and yellow Arctic poppy flowers blowing in the breeze, which makes me feel right at home!

During our (hopefully) only full day of logistics here in Resolute, we unpacked and packed our bags, roamed the loading bay finding research equipment from days of yore. Last summer in 2017, Jeff was headed on an epic nine-day trip from Qikiqtaruk all the way to the Yamal peninsula in Siberia to collaborate with polymath of the North, Bruce Forbes. This year we blew off the thick layer of dust on boxes of field equipment belonging to the very same Arctic researcher from many moons ago.

So much in Arctic fieldwork is about boxes – we pack, unpack, transport, from one end of the world to the other, in the pursuit of knowledge. Fun to find boxes of field researchers who have come before us!

Tomorrow morning first thing, if the weather cooperates, we are heading on a 2.5-hour flight north and east off to Alexandra Fjord and out of internet connectivity. On the very same day on the other side of the Canadian Arctic, Team Qikiqtaruk will be flying off from Inuvik to the island. And, Jakob is already up there at 78 degrees North on Svalbard. Three sites, seven field researchers, 16 drones will hopefully turn into terabytes of data to help us understand what is going on as tundra ecosystems warm.

Small airplanes and a dusty airstrip – a common start to Arctic adventures!

From west to east, the legacy of Pleistocene ice scrapes a green to brown palette, colors that dominate this year’s collaborative research efforts. From one Arctic field site in 2016, to two in 2017 and now in 2018 three! Team Shrub is expanding, just like the tundra shrubs. And we are just a part of the picture. After this summer, we will be able to scale up our ecological findings to sites across the tundra biome using data from the 20 sites spanning 7 Arctic nations of the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network. But first we all need to get out to our research sites!

By Isla and Jeff

Women translating ‘pixels to knowledge’ with the Google Earth Engine

At the June 2018 Google Earth Engine User Summit in Dublin, Ireland, 200 people came together to learn how to use the Google Earth Engine – a planetary-scale geospatial platform – to reshape our understand of the planet. One of the most exciting things about the three-day user summit was all of the people that we all got to meet from different walks of life, representing different disciplines, organizations and career stages.  In the following blog post, we highlight six women using the Google Earth Engine to improve our understanding of global change impacts and make a difference for people around the planet.

Inspiring to meet people with great ambitious and capabilities from different disciplines and at different career stages! From left to right: Lauren Fregosi, Isla Myers-Smith, Rebecca Moore, Shannon Sartain, Gergana Daskalova, Sabrina Szeto, Liza Goldberg. Photo Credit: David Carmichael.

Isla Myers-Smith

Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh

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Isla Myers-Smith, University of Edinburgh, laughing during the DroneHack hackathon coding session at the Google Earth Engine User Summit. Photo credit Alan Rowlette.

Satellite datasets indicate a substantial greening trend in the rapidly warming Northern reaches of our planet. Field scientists like myself have also observed vegetation change at sites around the tundra. The satellite greening pattern is thought to be caused by this on-the-ground vegetation change, but when we compare the satellite greening observed in pixels the size of farm fields or football pitches with the vegetation change observed in 1 m squared plots, we don’t always see these patterns matching up.

One way to figure out what specifically is causing the greening trends observed in satellites is to add higher resolution data into the mix using drones.  Drones can carry sensors that are similar to those on satellites, yet they provide imagery below the clouds and at very high resolutions with pixel sizes of centimeters instead of meters or kilometers.

Ever since I first got the opportunity to visit the Arctic over 10 years ago, I have been fascinated with how this temperature-limited biome at the extremes of our planet is rapidly responding as the planet warms.  The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and the impacts of that warming are already being felt from thawing permafrost soils to increases in shrubs. All these changes could create climate feedbacks that could accelerate warming not only in the Arctic but for the Earth as a whole.

The Google Earth Engine provides the platform that will allow us to integrate analyses of satellite datasets with the high-resolution drone data that my collaborators and I are collecting at sites across the Arctic ( At the 2018 Earth Engine user summit, I led a hackathon to explore how we can integrate drone data into analyses of satellite datasets and change in the Arctic. In just four hours, we made huge progress towards the analyses that will allow us to explore what is driving the greening of the Arctic and better predict how tundra ecosystems will respond as the planet warms.

Our drone hackathon app that allows users to explore what landscape level features such as bare ground patches might best explain when drone and satellite datasets don’t match up. This app was produced using the Google Earth Engine at the 2018 User Summit in Dublin, Ireland.

Shannon, Isla and the team presenting the outputs of the Drone Hackathon including our app.

Gergana Daskalova

PhD Resarcher, University of Edinburgh

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Gergana Daskalova, University of Edinburgh, learning about user interfaces and the Google Earth Engine. Photo Credit: Alan Rowlette.

Land-use change is the most significant driver of ecosystem change around the world (IPBES reports), yet its effects on temporal trends in populations and biodiversity have not yet been quantified on a global scale. We don’t yet know to what extent all of the impacts that humans have had on the planet’s ecosystems have translated into the losses and gains of species at sites all around the world.

By synthesizing global datasets of temporal trends in global change drivers and the biodiversity of ecosystems, we can test for the relationship between the magnitude and timing of for example forest cover change and the populations and communities of the Earth’s biota.

My passion for quantifying land-use trends stems from having observed marked differences in land cover around my home village in Bulgaria, Tyurkmen. During my PhD at the University of Edinburgh, I am extending my personal knowledge of land-use change from my homeland to the global scale. I am integrating the global BioTime dataset with records of land-use change including forest loss and gain and conversion from forests to agriculture and also agricultural abandonment when nature takes over again.

The analyses required to test the link between biodiversity and land-use change are very computationally intensive. Attending the Earth Engine Users Summit allowed me to advanced my skills, so I can now extract information from global remote-sensing databases, quantify land-use change through time, and visualize the intensity of global change drivers around the world. This training is putting me one key step closer to understanding the impacts of humans on the biodiversity of planet Earth.

This app illustrates forest cover change at sites around the world where biodiversity monitoring is being conducted. My research will explore the attribution of biodiversity change to land-use change including the loss and gain of forests around the world.

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The experimental forest cover change app to visualise the Global Forest Change database and biodiversity monitoring datasets around the world.

Lauren Fregosi

Data Scientist at the Arnhold Institute for Global Health
MPH, Epidemiology Student at the Icahn School of Medicine

Lauren Fregosi, Arnhold Institute for Global Health has a joint passion for technology and improving human health around the world.

Understanding the ways climate, environmental factors, land change, and resource use effects the health of people around the world is critical to improving the health and well-being of communities and earth’s ecosystems. Specifically, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a guideline to ‘transform our world’ into a better and more sustainable global environment for everyone. Some of the SDGs that reflect my work in global health and epidemiology are ‘good health and well-being’, ‘clean water and sanitation’, and ‘climate action.’

With the ease of accessibility to global data, understanding the interaction of environmental variables and infrastructure variables on human health has never been easier or quicker. Google Earth Engine (GEE) has allowed for a quick and easy way to render all the data needed to respond to global health challenges in a timely and scientifically rigorous manor. I am able to use the comprehensive data catalog provided in GEE to analyze health trends and export such results into other platforms for further analysis in an uncomplicated and reproducible way.

My fascination with technology and my passion for improving health around the world have always been at odds with one another, fighting for the front row. There seemed to be a gap between the two; health workers studied one thing and engineers studied the other. Earth Engine bridges the divide between health research and technology to give researchers a tool that integrates the two fields seamlessly, resulting in a better understanding of global health dynamics.

Liza Goldberg
Intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Biospheric Sciences Lab
Student at Atholton High School

Liza Goldberg presenting EcoMap, the Electronic Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Program in a lightning talk at the Google Earth Engine User Summit. Photo credit David Lagomasino.

Mangrove ecosystems hold high ecological and economic value in coastal communities around the world. They provide key ecosystem services including coastal protection of communities during storms, biodiversity harboring, support of fishing-based economies, and high sequestration of carbon. However, nearly half of Earth’s mangroves have been lost over the past 50 years due to pressures ranging from aquacultural and agricultural growth to urbanization, extreme weather, and erosion. In order to prevent such losses from continuing, it is necessary to develop a real-time monitoring system with the capacity to track mangrove loss and degradation in vulnerable regions. A lack of such a monitoring system limits the ability of coastal communities to best preserve surrounding mangroves for their ecosystem services and ecological benefit, further limiting the scope of informed restoration and policy measures.

EcoMap, the Electronic Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Program, is an interactive portal that allows users to map and monitor global mangrove vulnerability and loss in real-time. Using Earth Engine’s capacity to efficiently aggregate satellite data from a variety open-source datasets, EcoMap quantifies risk for both anthropogenic and ecological loss drivers, including urban expansion, agricultural and aquacultural growth, precipitation, and erosion. Through an interface developed entirely in Earth Engine, users have the ability to evaluate maps for each individual mangrove loss driver, analyze total mangrove vulnerability estimates, track changes in forest greenness over time, weight each loss driver when calculating total mangrove vulnerability, and evaluate the proportion of vulnerable forests in each mangrove-holding nation. Earth Engine provides the ideal platform for programs like EcoMap that seek to bring satellite-based analysis to non-expert users around the world.

After finishing a science fair project that sought to evaluate the impact of climate change on red maple sampling carbon fluxes, I was presented with the opportunity to work with a group of mangrove researchers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at age 14. Around that time, several news stories broke about recent extreme mangrove losses in the Gulf of Carpentaria region of Northern Australia. Several thousand hectares of mangrove forests were lost within a two-year period, and I was surprised that no system existed to predict and monitor the risk for such immense losses before they occurred. To solve this problem, I began developing the EcoMap platform in Earth Engine to serve as a global means of real-time mapping of mangrove vulnerability. I have continued building EcoMap since, and look forward to bringing the program to communities in several East and West African nations to monitor local mangrove loss and risk. Using EcoMap, I hope to promote sustainable use of such vital ecosystems, ultimately preventing the recurrence of such extreme die-offs in the future.

The GEE Summit breakout sessions allowed me to learn several key methods for object-based classification and land use change analysis, both of which I can use to better predict the effects of growth of particular stressors on mangrove degradation and loss. The summit also gave me the opportunity to meet other researchers who may be interested in collaborating in the release of a final web-based/mobile EcoMap product. I was thrilled to both learn these new techniques to enhance EcoMap and network with other attendees who share a common interest in using GEE to bridge the gap between science and sustainable development.

Sabrina Szeto

Geospatial Analyst, Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative
Master of Forestry, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

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Sabrina Szeto, Yale University, presenting about building a community of Earth Engine users at Yale University. Photo Credit: Alan Rowlette.

The Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative is a research program at Yale which fosters science-based land management across the intermountain American West. We partner with land managers such as ranchers and conservation organizations to work on questions about wildlife habitat, soil carbon, invasive species and achieving management goals for working lands. As a geospatial analyst, I make maps and build tools using both field and earth observation data to answer those questions. I also work closely with graduate students to help them harness the power of platforms like Earth Engine for their own research. At this year’s summit, I presented a lightning talk on how we are building a community of Earth Engine users at Yale University. We are doing that through a combination of peer-teaching, outreach and student mentorship in collaboration with a graduate course on geospatial software design taught by Professor Dana Tomlin.

I want to use geospatial analysis and earth observation data to tackle social and environmental challenges. As someone who studied both anthropology and forestry, I am curious about the way natural and social systems interact, and how human values impact the management of ecosystems. We live in an era of unprecedented change and resources as the increasing amount of data and processing power available makes new questions and new answers possible. Anyone with an internet connection can calculate global forest loss by year with a few lines of code on Earth Engine. Seeing the wide variety of challenges that are being addressed by developers on Earth Engine gives me hope that we can actually beat the tide on these issues. How? By turning data into useful information that can be acted upon by decision-makers.

I was particularly excited about now being able to publish apps built using the Earth Engine User Interface functionality with the click of a button. This will extend the impact of our tools as it has made updating and maintaining them a lot easier. Land managers who may not be expert GIS users or programmers can now easily access the results from our tools. I was also glad to see the interest in starting up other user groups in other organizations and universities, and have been in contact with other fellow conference attendees who are leading such initiatives. Seeing people take the new skills they learned during the conference and implement them into prototype solutions during the hackathon was inspiring to me.

Shannon Sartain

First-year university student
Earth Sciences Department, Dartmouth College

Shannon Sartain, Dartmouth College, explains river mixing, her independent study project conducted using the Google Earth Engine.

For my independent project at Dartmouth College, I study river mixing: when two rivers carrying different amounts of sediment join, how do their waters mix downstream of their confluence? Next year, I will use the skills and knowledge I’ve gained to investigate gold mining in the Amazon basin. Miners remove sediment from the rivers and add mercury to it because it bonds with the gold, allowing it to be extracted. When the sediment is returned to the river, it contains mercury which then can be taken up by fish in the river. This is a critical problem to address because fish are an important food source for those living in the Amazon basin.

Earth Engine— obviously, but, most notably— allows for data analysis on completely global scales. For my introductory research project, I have been able to amass data from rivers all over the world; Earth Engine allows us as researchers to make very broad statements about our planet’s processes (or anything else under investigation) because of the magnitude of not only data accessible, but also of its processing power. I have learned that the Earth Engine is more than just a tool to use for research but an interface embedded in a network of users, from whom I have already learned so much.

As I have been making my entrance into the scientific world, I have learned more about the inner workings of the research and publication processes. What it takes to get grants approved, the mechanics and biases of peer review, and the ultimate quest for publication. I understand it can be easy to get caught up in these details and, in a way, pursue science for science’s sake. However, I hope to continually acknowledge the power science has for change and use it for bettering our planet, whatever that might look like in my future. The problem of mercury infiltrating the waters of the Amazon basin is very real and dangerous for a large population of people. I look forward to continuing this research with more than just a publication in mind – with the goal to make an impact through my research.

I am very inspired to see how so many women are carving their paths through the scientific community. I am fortunate that my school has a fantastic Women in Science Project that allowed me to gain exposure to geospatial data analysis and the Earth Engine. That being said, the department in which I research and my group of mentors are both very significantly male-dominated. I have been fortunate to receive only support from those I work with, but to speak very personally with many women at the conference allowed me to believe more in what I am capable of accomplishing. In a way, I know this positive experience at the summit will help me achieve academic goals in my future— it will never fail to empower me, reminding of our capabilities as scientists.

At the Earth Engine User Summit, I got to meet the very people who created this beautiful tool – a very unique experience and a chance to ask questions or provide feedback. However, as a researcher very early in my scientific career, the most important thing I gleaned from the conference was meeting the other amazing women (#GalsofGEE) and speaking and sharing about our experiences and women in science.

by Isla, Gergana, Lauren, Liza, Sabrina and Shannon

Holiday Reading List

If your holiday is like mine, it is a chance to catch up on all the things that passed you by in the rest of 2017. Then, perhaps you will enjoy a few of the articles that I have been reading or re-visiting over the past couple of days. While explaining to my visiting family why I do the research I do, I have been drawing connections between past and current collaborators, the activities of Team Shrub over the last year and thinking ahead to future research possibilities.

The holidays for me is a time to sit in front of the Christmas tree and catch up on some reading, be it journal articles, all of the manuscripts I have been remiss on commenting on over the past few weeks or blog posts and magazine articles on topics close to my heart.

At the December ArcticNet meeting a couple weeks back, I had the chance to catch up with folks from the Canadian Museum of Nature and to ask after the world’s premier willow taxonomist George Argus. This reminded me of my visit with George during my PhD, when I spent a wintery day with him in at his farmhouse near Ottawa going through willow samples from my PhD field sites confirming my willow ID skills and hearing stories about Alaska back in the day.  Thinking about George got me thinking about my former officemate during my MSc at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Les Viereck and my former neighbour Ginny Wood.

Ginny told me in person of the incredible tale of the first assent of Denali’s South Buttress, then known as Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. George Argus, Les Viereck, Morton Wood, Elton Thayer made the climb with Ginny flying the food resupplies in the spring of 1954. On the expedition, the very same George Argus that I met during my PhD, was left in a tent for over a week with injuries after tragedy struck high the team up on the mountain. The following article from back in 2002, gives a riveting account of the tale which is well worth checking out if you have never heard the story before. These science and conservation heroes of mine, make my own adventuring seem very tame. But I feel privileged to have got to know Ginny, Les and George during my MSc and PhD, and they remain a source of inspiration to this day.

Remembering Denali’s Greatest Rescue

George Argus sticking his head out of his tent when stuck on Denali back in 1954.

Ginny would be appalled by the current political situation in the US.  She used to discuss with me the hubris of previous administrations – a word I will always associate with her. I can’t think what she would say now.  Ginny was a great proponent of wilderness preservation in Alaska and was the co-founder of the Alaska Conservation Society.  She was a key supporter of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in 1960 when she lobbied U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to establish the reserve.

This beautiful article by Christopher Solomon from November in the New York Times makes the recent passing of the tax bill and the opening of ANWR to development this month all the more poignant. This vast tundra region adjacent to the Yukon North Slope where Team Shrub has been working for several years is a fragile wilderness that is currently exposed to potentially dramatic impacts from climate change. ANWR truly merits protection from development and it makes saddens me deeply to see that protection lost.

Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter being recognized for their contributions to Alaskan conservation in 2001.

Reflecting on the North Slope of Alaska, makes me remember that it is also a place where my car was once broken into while I was on a five-day hike in the foothills of the Brooks Range. Some of my stuff was stolen including my back pack with a few telephone numbers in it, including Ginny’s number and that of one of my MSc supervisor. When a fisherman found the backpack floating down the Sagavanirktok River, he assumed the worst, but luckily I had just arrived back to Fairbanks and could let everyone know I was okay. It was also a bit of a challenge to make an insurance claim, as the car was broken into in the jurisdiction of Barrow Alaska even though Barrow was over 500 kms away with no connecting roads. There was a lot of confusion on the other end of the line when I tried to call in the break in. That car, Dr. J, met it’s end in a scrap heap this very year in 2017, after serving me loyally for over a decade and it is a vehicle I will greatly miss. Oh, the adventures that two-door Hyundai Accent without power steering and I had!

My travels to the North Slope of Alaska with my trusty car Dr. J back in the early 2000s when I was an MSc student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Thinking about future development on the North Slope of Alaska, makes one consider the current rapid development in other regions of the Arctic.  This evocative article that appeared in the October issue of National Geographic follows the Nenets reindeer herders on their annual 800 km migration across the Yamal peninsula through the development of the Russian oil fields. I guess I knew about the article when it first came out, but I didn’t get a chance to read it properly until this holiday. The article features a colleague of Team Shrub, Bruce Forbes, who has been studying and working with the Nenets people for decades to understand their resilience in the face of change.

They Migrate 800 Miles a Year. Now It’s Getting Tougher.

One of the team, Jeff Kerby had a chance to visit Yamal this past summer funded by a National Geographic Explorer grant.  In this blog post, he recounts his time in Yamal during an unexpected heat wave working to set up exclosures to understand the impacts of herbivory and collecting drone imagery as a part of the 2017 data collection for the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network that Jeff and I have been coordinating. Fieldwork in Yamal seems much more challenging that our work in Northern Canada with soaring temperatures and thick clouds of mosquitoes, but the imagery that Jeff has put together is striking. Aerial shots of reindeer herds crossing the tundra looking like ants from above and fog flowing like a river past shrubby tundra. I wonder what secrets hi-tech drones will indeed reveal.

Indigenous Cultures and Hi-Tech Drones Reveal Secrets of Siberia

And if you haven’t seen it already, you should totally check out Jeff’s other Nat Geo contribution this year when his photography and story were featured in the April issue of the magazine. This time it is the Gelada monkeys of the Ethiopian highlands that Jeff highlights with stunning photographs and a compelling scientific story.

Where the World’s Only Grass-Eating Monkeys Thrive

On the Nat Geo theme, I wanted to give a shout out to this story about the “Trees of the Tundra” featuring Steve Mamet about treeline research in Churchill, Manitoba on the coast of Hudson’s Bay. In his quote, Steve highlights the importance of data collection in tundra ecosystems to fill in the gaps where sophisticated computers models make assumptions. Filling in the gaps is one of the main motivators of Team Shrub’s research as well.

Trees in the Tundra

Beavers, Canada’s iconic national animal, have also recently featured in the New York Times. In this December article, the Beaver is highlighted as an agent of change in the tundra in an article covering the research of Team Shrub collaborator Ken Tape. I first remember seeing tundra Beavers in Denali National Park during my time in Alaska. The Beaver is relatively at home in a treeless tundra as long as there are tall shrubs to chew on, so to is the Moose and other creatures more normally associated with habitats south of treeline. As they move into tundra ecosystems they may alter those landscapes in relatively permanent ways such as enhancing permafrost thaw as the New York Times article highlights.

And while we are on the theme of treelines, tundra and climate change, Steve, Jeff, Ken, myself and Team Shrub’s other collaborators Trevor Lantz, Rob Fraser and Carissa Brown are all featured in this online piece by Kate Allen in the Toronto Star on the impact of climate change on species distributions in the Arctic and beyond. Whether it is shrubs, trees or butterflies, climate change could be redrawing the map of where species live and thrive.

The Great Global Species Shakeup

“Matched up photos of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island Territorial Park in the Yukon to visualize changes to vegetation, permafrost and coastal erosion” – from the Toronto Star

If you want to read a bit more about Team Shrub’s media coverage this year check out Jakob’s excellent interview with Camellia Williams in September about our drone research:

Capturing change in the Arctic

Or have a read of Haydn’s interview with Lesley Evans Ogden about the Tea Bag Index – using the humble tea bag to quantify controls on litter decomposition across the tundra biome.

Brewing Big Data: The Tea-Bag Index

tea bags

And, if you want to see some of the changes we saw first-hand in the Arctic this summer, check out the CBC coverage:

Researchers stunned by rapid rate of erosion on Herschel Island

Coastal erosion near Pauline Cove this summer. Check out for the CBC article about it!

Finally, if you want to ponder how art and science can be brought together and how tundra shrubs can act as time machines to help us understand past vegetation change, check out our blog post about Team Shrub’s contributions to the Edinburgh Science Festival:

Team Shrub at the Edinburgh Science Festival

So, that is a wrap up of some of Team Shrub’s media coverage in 2017 and a taster of what I have been reading and thinking about this holiday break. Thinking back on colleagues of the past and current collaborations makes me wonder what 2018 has in store. The Arctic is likely to continue to experience rapid change, and hopefully Team Shrub will be there collecting and analysing to help fill in some of the key gaps in our understanding of tundra vegetation change. And maybe this time next year, we can update you further on some stories of Arctic change.

By Isla

Arctic Change 2017 – Thursday – Friday round-up

So, it is the end of the week Friday morning and the final plenary session of the Arctic Change 2017 conference. Team Shrub is not feeling quite as perky as we were at the beginning of this conference, in fact some of us are feeling rather beat! It has been a week of full on science – conferencing by day and preparing talks by night. Last night was banquet night, a big night for Team Shrub – thus the delay with the Thursday round up. So, to find out about our final days at Arctic Change 2017 here is the Thursday – Friday round up.

It was a very proud moment yesterday for everyone on Team Shrub, and for me in particular as their supervisor, when PhD students Haydn and Jakob swept the leader board in positions 1 and 2 for the 1-minute presentation pitch competition. From the very back of the banquet hall to the front of the stage, with shouts and whoops from the Team Shrub table, Jakob and Haydn accepted their awards (with or without shoes on)!

Check out their awesome pitch YouTube videos here on the Tundra Tea Bag Experiment and using drones to quantify Arctic Tundra greening:

Both Haydn and Jakob gave presentations on Thursday at the very same time. Forcing me and the rest of the team to have to choose!!! Haydn presented Team Shrub’s tundra plant trait research to link vegetation change via traits to changes in ecosystem functions. Jakob presented results from his PhD and the Shrub Tundra NERC project quantifying tundra greening across the growing season using drones and satellite data. Both Jakob and Haydn totally rocked their presentations to packed rooms with great feedback and engagement from the audiences.

Next, Andy presented about his work as a part of the Shrub Tundra project to quantify tundra change using drones. From coastal erosion, thaw of retrogressive thaw slumps to quantifying shrub growth – Andy covered a lot of ground very clearly explaining the rapidly advancing technology and awesome Arctic applications. It was super exciting for me to see our hard work over the past three years on the NERC funded ShrubTundra project presented by the team.

I gave a talk in the UK-Canada Arctic Collaboration session sharing the preliminary results of Team Shrub’s 2017 collaboration funded by the UK-Canada bursary programme. We are collaborating with the Arctic Ecology Lab and Trevor Lantz at the University of Victoria, Robert Fraser at Natural Resources Canada, Jurjen van der Sluijs at the NWT government and Eric Cheyne and Aurora College to quantify tundra shrub biovolume to understand the drivers of tundra shrubification in the Western Canadian Arctic. My talk hopefully convinced the audience of the power of collaboration, and how by teaming up with other groups through this collaboration and also the newly founded High-latitude Drone Ecology Network you can collect data and answer scientific questions beyond the reach of any one group. You can check out our recent coverage in the Toronto Star to find out more about how both Trevor’s group and Team Shrub are studying shrub change and permafrost thaw in the Canadian Arctic.

Over coffee breaks and post presentation chats we have made some great connections this week with collaborators old and new. Thanks to everyone who stopped by the Team Shrub posters or came to chat to us after our talks.

After banquet festivities including a performance from Iqaluit’s The Jerry Cans and some late night revelries at Le Sacrilège, it is now the final day of the conference and time to wrap up our ArcticNet meeting experience for the year.

In the final plenary, Louis Fortier spoke to us about the future of ArcticNet and we heard about Yukon College becoming Yukon University. The end of the week makes me think about what is in store for Arctic research in Canada and how UK researchers like Team Shrub can play a role. I hope over the coming years, we will be able to help to answer the key questions facing the Arctic research community such as quantitatively attributing tundra vegetation change to climate warming and testing the correspondence among different records of vegetation change from on-the-ground, drone and satellite records.

The Arctic Change 2017 conference was an excellent week for Team Shrub. A chance for us to present our latest research, meet and hang out with tundra scientists from across Canada and around the world, report back on current collaborations and establish new ones and all and all have a wonderful time in beautiful Québec City. Thank you to the NERC Arctic Office, the British High Commission in Ottawa and the British Ecological Society for supporting our travel. And it turns out that all of our tweeting activity during the conference has payed off, as with our with 73K tweet impressions, we were highlighted as the top tweeters at the conference!

Now that the conference has wrapped there is time for one last meal of poutine. Until next time!


By Isla