Weathered in

Weather can alter the best laid plans when doing Arctic fieldwork. Our final days on Qikiqtaruk did not go according to plan. But then I never feel ready to leave the Arctic anyways. I relished the extra days that we had on the island and the adventures that ensued. Here is my account of being weathered in for almost a week at our Arctic field site. To check out Gergana’s take on those very same final days, see her blog post here.

The end of the field season is always a strange time – a limbo between Arctic fieldwork and the return to the rest of your life. You have your list of goals for the summer that are mostly ticked off. But there is still a mad rush to get the last things done. You say to yourself, “this is the last time I will walk around the spit” or “this will be the last sauna”. This summer the last sauna was definitely not the last as we had quite a few extra days added on to our field season.

Day 41

The day we were scheduled to leave Qikiqtaruk the storm clouds were moving in. Rain had already arrived in Inuvik and due to the bad weather our charter plane couldn’t pick us up. We unpacked our personal bags and settled in for the night.

We saw the newly arrived polar bear across the cove. We first spotted the bear a few days back. This was my first sighting of a polar bear in the wild, despite working in the Arctic for over 10 years and in Polar bear country on Svalbard, Ellesmere, Churchill and here on Qikiqtaruk. The bears have been around me, it is just I have never seen them with my own eyes before. So it was quite the excitement at the first sighting!

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A through the binoculars photo of Slumpy the polar bear from a distance.

Unlike most polar bears, this particular bear was actually not particularly white because it was covered in mud from the permafrost thaw slumps along the coast. We named him Slumpy. He (we thought it was a he) hunkered down across the bay to sleep through the storms. Later on, I spotted a grizzly bear roaming around the ridge near where the polar bear was curled up out of the wind. The two species of bears came within 100 m of each other, but seem to ignore one another. Spotting the two species of bears in the same terrain is an uncommon occurrence – though the two species have been found upon occasion to interbreed.

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Polar bear foot prints on the beach around camp.

Day 42

The winds picked up and it started to rain. Near gale-force winds were predicted. We weren’t going to be flying today. Time to bring in more wood for the wood stove and to bake some cookies. We had eaten the same dinner for two or was it three nights in a row now – sun-dried tomato pasta – hard to beat! There was an evening game of cards planned – an intense game called Snert.

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Ravens playing in the wind above the tent shelters.

Day 43

Today, the winds reached near gale force. That meant no plane again. Instead, more time by the fire. More cooking and cleaning. There were boxes to inventory and more organising to do. Trips to the outhouse were exciting with the wind ripping the door out of your hands. The buildings moan and groan in the wind. The stove pipes rattled. The polar bear was still across the bay hunkered down in the terrible weather. But, we were cosy warm by the wood stove.

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The wind and waves of the constant storm that kept us weathered in for days.

Day 44

Rain and winds again. It was hard to concentrate on much of anything not knowing what the future could hold. Will we fly tomorrow or not? Will we be here for days? Whittling wood, crafts and cooking were the best ways to pass the time. I got out my watercolour paints. There were still some data and camera cards to back up. The bags were still mostly packed.  And we were unsure how much to unpack. We could be leaving at any time if the weather improved.

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A bowhead whale in Pauline Cove in the darkness of the stormy rains.

In the afternoon, we heard that there were bowhead whales in the bay! We rushed out into the horizontal rain trying to keep our cameras dry. There were at least four bowheads close to shore by the sauna swimming back and forth and feeding in the shallows. They were so close you felt you could reach out and touch them. We wonder could they see us through the water? It was too cold to stay out for long, so we did rotations by the fire before heading out again to commune with the whales.

In the evening, we heard a message on the handheld radios. “Polar bear coming to camp”. We grabbed our cameras and threw on our warm clothes and stood outside our building watching from a safe distance. Sure enough along the beach beyond the runway Slumpy was slowly approaching. The rangers scared off the bear after we got a pretty good view from our buildings.

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Slumpy the polar bear and a distant bowhead painted by Isla Myers-Smith.

Day 45

The weather had improved a bit, but there was still some low cloud, rain and fog. Others were more optimistic, but I didn’t think we were flying today. The Community Building became a hair salon for those wanting a trim or style. The sauna was on for everyone to get cleaned up before our returns to town. The polar bear had wandered off. The bowheads were gone. We all went for walks around the spit for fresh air and to stave off cabin fever.

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Snow flakes the size of ping pong balls as winter arrives in August.

In the evening, we looked out the window. Snowflakes the size of ping pong balls were falling from the sky. We rushed out to see first-hand and to catch snowflakes on our tongues. Soon there was enough snow on the ground for a few snowballs and a bit of a snowball fight. How white would it be when we woke up tomorrow? Only time would tell.

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Qikiqtaruk in greys and whites with the fresh dusting of snow.

Day 46

I woke up early to a two-inch blanket of snow across the island. Everything was white including the fog all around. The winds had died down. Qikiqtaruk was a winter wonderland. I walked around camp to enjoy this view of the island that I don’t usually get, but I stayed close to the buildings. Slumpy would blend in much better in this world of white! With the snow and the fog, the plane was unlikely to come right away, so I went back to bed.

The next time I woke things were brighter. The fog had cleared. The snow was melting. The weather might now be flyable! Then we got word, the plane was on the way. We were the second flight, but it was still time to kick into high gear and get our stuff re-packed and out to the runway. We also needed to clean, sweep and mop again. We shifted from being on hold to action mode.

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The plane finally arriving means it is time for us to be leaving the Arctic.

The first plane arrived. We thought to ourselves, we might actually leave on today – our sixth day of being weathered in. The pilot warned us to tell him over InReach if the fog returned or if it started to snow, but instead over the next hours the clouds cleared. We had time to put the drones in the air one last time to capture the island dusted in snow and the first glimpses of sun for over a week. Then finally, we heard the sound of the returning Twin Otter and saw the plane in the distance.

This was our final day on the island. We saw the once verdant green Arctic turn from autumnal yellows and browns to white with snow. The beginning of winter had returned to the Arctic just as we were headed south – the end of the field season.

Words, photos and video by Isla Myers-Smith

The Arctic at a second glance

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

Beyond the first glance

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

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

A hidden Arctic

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

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

An unexpected diversity

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

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

An unexpected passion for plants

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

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

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

A botanist’s toolkit

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

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

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

A tundra full of surprises

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

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

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

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

A time for reflection

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

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

Words by Gergana Daskalova

An island beyond time

Qikiqtaruk is an island beyond time. The mix of heritage, long human history and the modern day all collide in one place under the midnight sun, moving its inhabitants to a time zone all of their own.

Pauline Cove seen from a drone’s camera. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

“Are we meeting at 8:30 pm Yukon Time or 8:30 pm Inuvik time? I think they said Yukon Time. But it is 8:30 now! No, it isn’t, it is 7:30. Yes, but that is 7:30 Mountain Time. Wait, no it isn’t. What time zone is this iPad in? It is 8:30 Pacific Time after all. That means we’re late!”

These are the types of conversations you have when you live on an island existing in at least two time zones. Officially we are in the Yukon and thus in the Pacific Time Zone. But all of our logistics come through Inuvik, so it makes more sense to keep to Inuvik time as that is when the planes land. The Yukon Government sticks to the official time and the rest of us generally are on Inuvik time – if it suits us.

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Two of Canada’s time zones are represented here, and one that goes beyond traditional time. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

We’ve noticed this year that our smart phones and iPads have gotten smarter. They reset the time back to Pacific when we set them manually to Mountain, contributing to the time zone confusions. But then this is the Arctic – the land of midnight sun and 24-hour daylight. So schedules tend to be somewhat fluid anyways.

Mornings on Qikiqtaruk are long drawn out events. When does morning even begin? It is hard to say and usually we are sleeping through the transition as the sun climbs higher in the Eastern part of the sky. Morning for us at the moment is when sun pours into the windows of the East side of Signals house making it hard to keep your eyes closed for much longer.

Solar noon comes around at 2 pm (Inuvik Time) so that is when you want drones in the air if you are collecting multispectral data. That means getting up at the crack of 9:30 am and getting bags ready and lunches packed by 11:00 am for flights to begin by 12:00 pm – Inuvik time that is.

Luke launching the Parrot DISCO while judging the wind. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

The afternoon is a long fade from midday to evening. By 5:00 pm the light is getting a bit low for multispectral data collection, but for RGB work, the light is still fine, so there might be time to hike over to the slump or head over to the coast for some additional flights.

The sun is getting low in the sky by 8:00 or 9:00 pm or so and if it was a sunny day, that means golden light angling out of the clouds with rays hitting the horizon. This starts the period when the light is great for photography. A last drone flight with video to capture the site, or photos as you walk home to camp are an end to the work day.

Looking out towards Colinson Head. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

By 11:00 pm or so the magical hours are approaching. The golden light is now bathing the land and often the seas have stilled to a flat calm. Now the Arctic is achingly beautiful everywhere you look. Sandpipers and plovers run around the ponds, baby eider ducks splash in the waves, and if you are lucky, a fox walks the beach or a pod of belugas swim by. From midnight until 4:00 am the Arctic is at its daily best and the photographer can’t rest just yet.

Sunset reflections on Pauline Cove. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

By 4:00 to 5:00 am the sun is starting to rise again in the sky. And the promise of good drone weather the next day sends the last stragglers to bed. When the wake up is at 9:30 am, that means a short night of sleep, but often the morning weather check indicates conditions no good for drone flying – too windy, too foggy, to rainy, so then you get to blissfully sleep in.

Semipalmated Plover and chick. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

The schedule that one adapts to when out here is affectionately known as Herschel Time – when you follow the light and the weather and don’t stick to the 9 to 5 and 24-hour day. As I write this blog post an hour from the solar minimum and ponder the other things I want to accomplish this evening before I head to bed “early”, I know I am now adjusted to the schedule of this place.

Words by Isla and photos by Gergana

Blowing in the wind

The Yukon flag flaps East, then North, then West, then back to North – with the shifting winds likely signifying a storm on the way. What will the looming clouds to the west bring? It could be all sorts of different weather as our last week on the island has taught us. Weather dictates life as a field researcher in the Arctic. Our fates are tied to the winds.

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The gale arrives as the wind whips the flag first East then West and up to 75 km/h the second of multiple storms we have experienced over the last week. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

We have recently experienced almost all possible weather conditions over the span of just a few days. From hot sun and still air, to a thunderstorm and hail pelting the island, to gale-force winds, to white-out fog, to rain and back to sun. The weather continues to be unpredictable making it hard to plan our fieldwork. Each night we go to bed wondering what weather we will wake up to the next morning.

Weather #1: The lightning storm The day was hot for the Arctic. It could have been as warm as 18ºC. So hot we were in t-shirts, and the air was still and oppressive. These are rare conditions when the breeze usually has a chill to it. We were back at camp after being out that day and the sky was turning to sort of grey-ish yellow in the distance to the West. Then we heard our first thunder clap. We ran outside to get a better view with GoPros and cameras in tow. Across the island to the North of us a show played out of arcing lightning crisscrossing the sky punctuated by booming claps of thunder.

Once the darkest clouds reached us, we began to be pelted with a mix of hail and rain, soon getting quite wet! The lightning strikes appeared from a distance to be making landfall – though likely they were not. Could the tundra of Qikiqtaruk burn, we wondered as we watched. Large tundra fires have been observed in this region of the world. In 2007, the Anaktuvuk River fire burned 1039 km2 of tundra on Alaska’s North Slope just a few hundred kilometers from Qikiqtaruk. From charcoal records, we know that the tundra burned more frequently in the past during warmer periods of the Holocene. But a fire was not lit that evening on the Qikiqtaruk tundra.

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A frame from our GoPro Fusion video of lightning arcing in the sky and reflected in the still calm waters of the pond in front of the Sauna as the electrical storm arrives. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Weather #2: The Gale The following day, all of our weather sources were alerting us. The rangers said there was wind on the way. I got an InReach message from my brother telling us to stay safe, and the weather reports said gale-force winds. The winds were already well past breezy and white-capped waves were crashing on the shores to the East. But that evening at around 8pm the winds switched suddenly from East to West. The chimney started thrumming and the windows started rattling – the storm had arrived.

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Waves crash against first the Eastern shores and then the West as the winds pick up in advance of the gale. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

As the winds grew stronger and stronger, we headed out into them to experience the wildness around camp. With waterproof GoPro Fusions in hand we headed off to the beach where the waves were crashing onto shore sending spray high into the air. The waves were making it over the beach in places, flooding pools around camp and splashing into the buildings close to shore. The brave Eider duck families were still out there riding the waves trying to find a bit of shelter in the wind. It was time to retreat indoors when Gergana got drenched by a wave in the face.

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A family of Eider ducks splash in the waves seeking shelter during the gale. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Weather #3: The fog Next morning we woke up, not to devastation, but to the fallen stairs of one of the outhouses and our mostly empty water barrel blown over. The high winds of the previous day had been replaced by a calm wetness. Though the clouds came and went, fog blew in from across the cove, blanketing the camp in white. The fog has a certain peace to it, particularly fog after storms. But this marked yet another day without data collection. And the wet weather left a feeling of being trapped in camp. Our bags were packed and ready to head out drone flying, but we were grounded yet again by the weather.

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The fog descends on Pauline Cove on the third day of stormy weather. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

We had lost track of time during the period of storminess and changeable weather. Finally, three or it could have been four days after we last were out of camp, the skies cleared and the winds dropped and we were able to return to data collection. Five flights of multispectral data to capture tundra greenness and one trip to a distant permafrost slump to explore and map with our drones. Yay! The satisfaction of full day out in the field and data to back up on our return. But the good weather was short lived! As the winds are back and so are we are yet again stuck back at camp.

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, photos by Gergana Daskalova

Why Arctic?

I’m joining up with Isla, Gergana, and the rest of Team Shrub in the coming days on Qikiqtaruk. They’ve sent some updates from the island back with another team that we’re hoping to post soon. In the meantime, however, I’m very much looking forward to getting out there to catch up on what has been an extraordinarily early spring and summer.

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A caribou walking the beach between the tent shelters. Photo by Jeff Kerby.

One question worth asking is why? I’ve just wrapped up a series of flights and bus-trips taking me from Sakhalin, Russia to Inuvik, Canada…the long way around. I’m supremely jet-lagged, don’t smell great, and have released an elephant’s weight of carbon into the atmosphere for my efforts. Only one of these really impacts you, but all these costs require accounting. Why travel here? Why work here? Why study here?

Why the Arctic?

There are many answers to these questions, some are compelling for different reasons than others. In a few posts (that perhaps my colleagues will join in on), I’ll try to answer. So first, a simple one:

Because life happens fast here. And it has to.

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A semipalmated plover mother and chicks – an example of the rapid pace of life in the Arctic. Gif by Jeff Kerby.

Few other places on the planet switch from cold, dark, and deadly to warm, verdant, and full of life so quickly. Similarly, these good times don’t last long. The result is that plants and animals that live here face unique challenges about growing quickly, timing their life-cycles just right, and balancing seemingly impossible trade-offs. When these already intense seasonal cycles are disrupted by global shifts in climate, their impacts on plant and animal life reveals quite a bit about how life here works. In short, you can learn a lot when things break.

More answers to Why Arctic to come!

Words and photos by Jeff Kerby

What does it mean to be an explorer?

There are different types of exploration. Exploration is not just the discovery of a new place, it is also the discovery of new information and knowledge. Here on the island, we are trying to understand the causes of the Arctic greening patterns observed by satellites and exactly how these landscapes are being influenced by climate change. I guess the ultimate aim of our scientific research is scientific discovery, but we are striving for a different sort of discovery than Arctic explorers of the past.

One way that Team Shrub research is providing a new perspective on Arctic greening and change is by capturing a drone’s eye view of the tundra. Photo by Team Shrub.

Though Qikiqtaruk is located in a remote region of the Yukon Arctic coast over 200 km from the nearest year-round settlement, it is also home to the Inuvialuit. It has a long human history and active current community of hunters, gatherers and travelers. When we as researchers visit this place we are not exploring new territory. We are visiting the home of others and getting to know this landscape for ourselves. Each day out on the tundra, one is forming a mental map of each ridge and valley, each plant species and plot, but arguably this is only a personal discovery – others have set foot here before.

Arctic exploration has a mixed past. There are many epic tails to be told of southern people adventuring in the North and forming their own ideas about this environment. But many of those adventures have not ended well for the people involved. This summer I have been reading about the 1921-23 Wrangle Island expedition organized by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (“Ada Blackjack – A True Story of Survival in The Arctic” by Jennifer Niven). That expedition was not a success with four dying and the lone survivor being a Inupiat woman from near Nome, Alaska called Ada Blackjack. She alone figured out how to survive for two years in that far North landscape.

The Wrangle five after they had arrived on the island and before the hardships had begun. Pictured are Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer, Milton Galle, Ada Blackjack and Victoria (“Vic”) the expedition cat. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

The Wrangle expedition overturned Stefansson’s concept of the “friendly Arctic” as a place where anyone can easily subsist and survive. That being said, the Arctic is a very friendly place in many ways, if you come prepared and have the support of those who have lived here for countless generations. So as I have my daily dose of Country Time powdered drink with 100% of my daily vitamin C to stave off scurvy, the ailment to which one member of the Stefansson expedition succumbed, I think of the Arctic explorers of the past who did not have access to such modern comforts.

Stefansson made it to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island on his 1913 Arctic expedition, but it was only a short stop on the island, recorded here in his journal, which I got to check out at the Dartmouth College Rauner Library a couple of years ago. He returned to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in multiple other occasions. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

Over the past few years, I have been hanging out with a few different photographers: Jeffrey Kerby, Sandra Angers-Blondin and Gergana Daskalova. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer exactly, but thinking about photography has driven home the idea for me that every photographic image and also every idea formed is viewed through a lens. When I come to the Arctic and form my scientific understanding – I too see through a lens. Stefansson saw the Arctic through a very distorted lens, or perhaps rather he used filters to construct a version of the Arctic that was far from reality.

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The Arctic can be viewed from different angles. See Gergana’s post on the Arctic at a Second Glance. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Science, the other form of exploration, is also a journey. You apply for funding, if your funding comes through, you plan your field expedition, you get all your equipment and supplies and travel to your field site. And then once I arrive, I usually have a small crisis of confidence. Will we be able to collect the data? Were my ideas that good to begin with? What if everything goes wrong? Then you make a schedule and start plugging away and before you know it the data are coming in and you are achieving your goals day by day.

I have just started reading about one of the world’s most famous explorer scientists – Alexander Humboldt. By reading his writings this summer (“Selected Writings” edited by Andrea Wolf), I hope to be inspired by my own more humble scientific adventures. Humboldt was the father of biogeography and an early pioneer of ecology. He was also the first person arguably to use the infographic to great effect. His ‘Naturgemälde’ is a drawing of a mountain with all of the plant species by elevation depicted on the mountain slopes and environmental parameters that vary with elevation along the two sides. Capturing complex scientific concepts visually is something that I aspire towards.

The ‘Naturgemälde’ shows Chimborazo mountain – a mountain that helped Humboldt form his vision of nature. The engraving illustrates Humboldt’s ideas about plant distributions and nature as a web of life. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

Humboldt was driven by scientific discovery as he describes here in his ‘Personal Narrative’, 1812: “From my earliest days I felt the urge to travel to distant lands seldom visited by Europeans. This urge characterizes a moment when our life seems to open before us like a limitless horizon… What attracted me … was no longer the promise of a wandering life full of adventures, but a desire to see with my own eyes a grand, wild nature…, and the prospect of collecting facts that might contribute to the progress of science.”

Sometimes scientific discoveries happen right in the field. We now know how the big thaw slump on the island has changed between this year and last as the peninsula that has been there for perhaps a decade is melting away. We have discovered that the surface soils at this time of year are thawed deeper than they have ever been since we started our measurements. It looks like the erosion is rapidly progressing along the coastal reach near camp. As the field season progresses, I am learning many new things about this place.

The second largest thaw slump in North America – Slump D – from the air. Here, you can see the much reduced peninsula and impressive ice cliffs of the headwall from the air. Photo by Team Shrub.

Sometimes the discoveries come much later once the data are analyzed. We won’t get the full answers to our greening questions until we have processed many drone models and analyzed many different datasets together. This full process of scientific discovery can take many years from data collection to papers. But it is finding the answers to my research questions that really drives me and keeps me going when the scientific process is slow and winding.

Being an Arctic researcher is, I guess, a combination of the two types of exploration – exploration of a place, and of the scientific understanding of that place. I feel very lucky to have a career that allows me to do both. I hope that I can be a different type of explorer to the first southern explorers who came to this place. I hope to share more respect for the people living here and the immense knowledge that they have. I hope the research that we do contributes to a better understanding of this place for everyone. As I conduct exploration in the modern day, I try to think on the exploration of the past. I believe that the relationships between researchers and local peoples are improving, but there is more to do on this front.

Isla looking out onto the sea and thinking about those exploring Arctic ground in times past. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

For now, here, from the island, I will try to get the most out of my time on the tundra in preparation for a winter of data exploration in front of a computer. And I will try always to keep in mind my own personal lens through which I view the Arctic.

Words by Isla Myers-Smith

The tundra up close

It is the first week of July and the tundra has lit up in colour. Shades of pink, blue, yellow and white mix in to create a vibrant tundra landscape. This is the time when the diversity of plants on Qikiqtaruk is most striking. Many tundra plants are small in stature and only bloom for a short period of time. For most of the year, this diversity remains hidden, but now, it fills up the tundra with showy flowers and floral scents. Zooming in on this arctic landscape further reveals many species, each with its own adaptations for life at high latitudes.

The tundra is brimming with flowers, like lupines, avens, willows and more. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A quick pace of life

In the tundra, time often appears to stand still with the never setting sun. Especially on calm evenings with perfect sunset reflections in the water, or foggy days when the island is enshrouded in white cloud. But behind this apparent stillness, a quickly paced life for plants takes place. Here, plants have only a few weeks to bloom and disperse their seeds. Though it seems like the flowers have only just appeared, if we look closely, we can already see seeds that the Arctic winds will soon carry across the tundra.

Against the midnight sun, the petals of this lousewort flower become translucent, revealing the seeds that will soon be dispersed across the tundra. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Flurry of life

When July arrives, it is as if the whole tundra, from the plants to the wildlife, is swept into a flurry of life. Buzzing invertebrates and gusty winds spread pollen from flower to flower across the landscape. The flight of an Arctic bumblebee is perhaps the loudest bee buzz I have ever heard when it gets close. In this high-paced life, all leads up to peak biomass, the time of the year when the tundra will be the greenest and most bountiful it will be all year.

The arctic poppy, with its electric yellow petals, stands out from afar, making it a popular stop for the insects flying across these landscapes. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Peak biomass

Peak biomass is the pinnacle of a summer in the Arctic. Not just for the plants and wildlife, but also for scientists. In the days surrounding peak biomass, I will once again pick up a 1×1 m plot, up to a 100 metal pin flags, long measuring tapes and more. With the equipment in tow, I will survey the diversity of plant life on Qikiqtaruk and mark the exact locations of where tundra biodiversity hides. Revealing the diversity of these arctic plant communities and how it relates to microclimates across the landscape can help us predict how ongoing and future climate change will alter life here on Qikiqtaruk and around the Arctic. So us scientists will pick up our pace as well, dashing across the tundra, perhaps not as quickly as a bumblebee, but with similar determination.

In the tundra, peak biomass marks the time of year when the landscape is the greenest and plant life is most bountiful. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

And then the tundra will become quiet again. From peak biomass onwards, life here slows down, in time for the oncoming winter. Bumblebees will retreat to the soil; willows will shed their last leaf and the tundra will slow down to a browner quiet in preparation for the dark months ahead. In around 10 months, spring will return and the cycle will begin again.

Words by Gergana Daskalova

All about the gear

A field expedition is part science, part logistics, part adventures, but it is also all about the gear. We wouldn’t be able to collect the data we need without a fair bit equipment. With all of our gear in toe we can now focus on capturing Arctic greening and hidden biodiversity.

In case you are interested, we thought we could run through some of the kit we are bringing with us this year.

The Drones

To build 3D models of tundra landscapes, we will be using Phantom 4 multicopter drones by DJI. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
For precision drone mapping, we will use the DJI Phantom 4 RTK drone system. Here’s hoping we don’t get logged out without regular internet access! Photo by Malkolm Boothroyd.
To capture tundra greenness across the landscape, we will use Parrot Disco Pro Ag drones with the Sequoia multispectral sensor. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
For large-scale RGB work we have also brought along our home-built Zeta FX-61 Phantom fixed wing drones. Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.
To capture our tundra field site using video and photography from the air, we will use a DJI Mavic 2 Pro. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

The camera kit

For photography, Gergana will be shooting with a Canon 7D Mark II camera. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To see up close, far away and from a wide angle, Gergana will shoot with Canon lenses including the 100mm f2.8 USM Macro, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II and 16-35mm f4, and a Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To capture movement of water and clouds, Gergana will take long exposure shots with Lee filters. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To keep her camera steady, Gergana will use a Manfrotto befree Live tripod. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To capture the tundra in 360 degrees and to shot above and below the water surface we have brought along two GoPro Fusions. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

We also have Nikon, Sony and other cameras along for the summer too. You can never have too many cameras!

The recording kit

To record the sounds of the Arctic, we will use Zoom H4n Pro recorders and a Røde VideoMic Pro. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

The knee brace

To make it out to our field sites across the rugged tundra, Isla will benefit from knee support by an Ossur knee brace provided by Kintec Vancouver and all of her physio from Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre! Thanks Kelli and Trixie! Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Thanks to National Geographic Society and the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK Arctic Office for supporting this field expedition. Thanks to National Geographic Society for an equipment loan of camera lenses, a GoPro Fusion, sound recorder and video camera. Thanks to Malkolm Boothroyd for providing us with a remote camera trigger, when we forgot to bring one ourselves! And thanks to our technical support team including Iain Myers-Smith, Mariana García Criado and Cameron Eckert who have been messaging via our InReach to help us overcome our technical and logistical challenges thus far!

So that gives you an idea of some of the kit we are bringing with us. It is always an adventure to try to pack all the right gear, figure out how your equipment works and particularly whether it will work without internet! Almost a week into our field season, and so far the gear has been serving us well. Here’s to a summer with as few technical challenges as possible – to keep the content rolling in.

Words by Isla Myers-Smith

New beginnings

Team Shrub has arrived on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic. Our Greening Arctic expedition has begun. We’re here to capture how the tundra plants of this permafrost-underlain landscape are responding as the Arctic warms.

The first sight of Qikiqtaruk from our Twin Otter flight to the island. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
Mud cliffs eroding into turquoise waters – a relic of the last ice age and an island under constant change with belugas swimming by. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

The start of an expedition is that moment when you step off of the plane and your boots hit the ground. It is a lot of work to prepare for a field season and it is only once you arrive that the excitement really sinks in. As my “city” running shoes hit the ground on the sandy beach strip of Qikiqtaruk, it hits me. We’re finally here.

The plane has landed on the beach strip. We have finally arrived and are about set foot on the ground at our Arctic field site Qikiqtaruk – home for the next 40 days. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

First impressions

Qikiqtaruk has changed since I was last here a year ago. The air strip is closer to the beach, the buildings are closer to the waves, the permafrost thaw slumps in the distance have transformed their shapes. And yet in other ways this place is unchanged, timeless. After the hours and days it takes to adjust, it starts to feel like I have never left. We are back to the routines of living on the island. The running shoes and jeans are packed and our insulated rubber boots and down jackets are on. We’re ready to get to work.

Setting off across the tundra with backpacks full of equipment to survey tundra greenness across the landscape as it changes over the season. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Drones in the air

After four days, plant and permafrost data collection is under way, drones are in the air and the NASA plane has already surveyed the island as a part of the NASA Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment Project. The task has begun to capture island-scale greenness and uncover the drivers of vegetation change across these tundra landscapes and over time. So far our fieldwork has gone according to plan, but Arctic fieldwork can always have surprises in store. What will tomorrow bring?

The launch. Fixed-wing drones take to the skies to capture the greenness of these greening tundra landscapes. These data will be compared with data from satellites and the NASA plane as a part of the ABoVE project to figure out what information is missing in coarse-resolution data. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Winds of change

As I write this, the winds outside our building are shifting from the East winds of the past few days to the North. From mirror still seas to a chop on the water – feels like a change of weather might be on the way. Will we keep plan with our field schedule or will the Arctic weather will dictate where and when we next go out to collect data? If the weather turns, there is plenty of planning and preparation to do for the field season ahead. But, we’ll be impatiently waiting for the weather to clear again.

Still waters before the storm on the 9th of July on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic – the location of the Greening Arctic Expedition. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

I will sign off here under the midnight sun as the blue skies shift towards a steely grey. Time to call an end to my day here in anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.

Words by Isla Myers-Smith