A Drone Pilot’s Misadventures During His First Arctic Field Season

It was day three on the island: too early in the field season for a first timer like myself to know any of the tricks to surviving a day like the one we were about to encounter. It was a beautiful, balmy sunny day with no winds. Gergana and I hiked an hour with our 70 pound battery-filled packs to get to our drone staging area for the day. As we settled in, I noticed there was a swarm of mosquitoes flying around us. This was it. This was the encounter everyone had warned me about before departing for the Arctic. I was going to have to last the rest of the day with the few provisions that I had brought in my pack fighting off that relentless swarm of bugs.

Mission planning a drone flight from a different perspective and trying to keep the bugs off of my face

I spent the remaining 10 hours in the field that day completely miserable. Quickly realizing that I did not bring the correct attire to deal with these airborne creatures (if that was even possible), and they weren’t going anywhere without a breath of wind that day. During lunch, I lost count of how many bugs I swallowed while reaching for a bite of my veggie wrap, but I was too hungry to skip a meal, so I had to make do with the extra protein I was consuming. By mid-afternoon, I completely gave up. Bugs were everywhere; I now had two bites on the inside of my mouth and my lower lip was noticeably swollen. I had reached a new low and all I could think was, how did I get here? Why did I pass up that internship in the city this summer? That office was in an air controlled building with no bugs! During our walk back to camp later that evening, I pondered what the next month on this remote Arctic island would look like, and how I would manage to survive it.

Enjoying the late evening views from Pauline Cove during our first day on the island

We returned to camp late that evening. The four of us members of Team Shrub sat at the table outside for dinner under the midnight sun enjoying each other’s company, eating a delicious home cooked meal and sharing the struggles of the day’s field work. The evening concluded with brushing my teeth on the coast, looking out over the glassy water to the most beautiful sunset I’d even seen in my entire life. It was overwhelming to appreciate all of the beauty that this landscape had to offer at that moment. All of the struggles from earlier that day seemed well worth it now.


This is how most days of the field season followed: I would experience a setback or struggle that made me question why I was here, that was almost immediately followed with an experience to remind me why I was. Seeing the most terrifying, yet cutest, baby caribou up close; getting completely soaked in the field and coming home to a majestic whale-watching scene on a sauna night; having back-to-back botched days of drone missions due to compass issues from the much closer magnetic north, then enjoying an amazing feast surrounded by the best of company; enduring sub-freezing temperatures in August, then a lovely warm campfire with live music that same evening.

IMG_3424.JPGThere were plenty of issues that arose during the field season including: a series of earthquakes, a tsunami warning scare, multiple grizzly and polar bear evacuations, a variety of types of inclement weather from wind to rain to snow, drone malfunctions including compass and accelerometer errors, and that most difficult of times when we ran out of ranch dressing. But there were also an abundance of equally incredible experiences to offset all of the setbacks of the trip including meeting new people, learning about their research, getting to fly new drones, seeing all sorts of Arctic wildlife, experiencing the local culture. I hiked over 15 miles one day in awful weather with wet shoes using a measuring tool that only had German instructions and yet it was one of the best days I had that whole summer all because of the company and scenery that the day had to offer.

The challenges from the field season on Qikiqtaruk made me appreciate the wildlife, culture, and experiences so much more. Now, as I’m writing this blog post in my air-conditioned office eating lunch from the cafeteria downstairs, I’m daydreaming of the
amazing work days I had in the far away Arctic; eager for another incredible experience that the tundra has to offer, even if it means dealing with some setbacks. Although, this chicken wrap does taste better without mosquitoes in it.

A successful flight completed with the Disco in a field of Arctic cottongrass

On a more serious note, I want to ​send out a huge thanks to the Yukon Park Rangers who looked after us during our time on the island, and who put our safety above their own. To all those on Qikiqtaruk last summer – for all the good and bad it was the adventure of a life time.

Words by Noah Bell, photos and video by Gergana Daskalova, Mariana García Criado,  Sandra Angers-Blondin, and Noah Bell

Life in the High Arctic

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, Photos by Jeff Kerby

Summertime at Alexandra Fjord. 78 degrees north. The sun shines all day long.

Around midnight, you can experience the phenomenon of a double sun where the sun reflects off the still waters of the Fjord. One evening, we even had a quadruple sun with sun dogs – the mirrored sunlight in the air – also reflecting off the waters.

Like everywhere in the Arctic, midnight is the most magical time. But to fill you in on life in the High Arctic, here is our routine as the sun rotates around us in the 24-hour light of an Arctic summer’s day.


The mornings are often the coldest time. Temperatures are chilly, fluctuating between zero and 12 degrees. Never go out without your down jacket packed and your hat to hand. The ocean is choked with sea ice and each time the tides rise and fall the ice bergs rotate, melt, and crack to create brand new ice sculptures along the shore. Glaciers flow into the Fjord valleys, with the local Twin Glacier slowly retreating at around five metres a year back up to the permanent ice fields. Ice surrounds you even at the end of July – this is the High Arctic after all.


The daily routine keeps us to schedule (unlike in the Western Arctic where we move to “Herschel Time”) with morning (7:30 am) and evening (7:00 pm) “sched.” – a radio communication for all of the remote camps with the logistics coordinators at the Polar Continental Shelf Programme Headquarters in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

“Hello 26, this is Alexandra Fjord, we hear you 5 by 5, all is well and we have no traffic”.


Breakfast times are a chance to catch up with the research crew, analyze our last night’s dreams with the “Dream book” or learn an Inuktitut phrase such as ‘would you like some coffee’? ᑳᐱᑐᕈᒪᕖᑦ? It is also a chance to chat about field research progress and to plan the days and the science with the team. After breakfast and packing it is out to the field – Cassiope, Dryas, Willow, Sax Opp, Fert, or far away Dome are the field sites that one could be heading off to. Or maybe it is a hike farther afield to the glacier or up the fjord valley hill-slopes.


When you are on Team Drone, the packing takes a bit longer and the backpacks are a fair bit heavier with drones, sensors, calibration panels, many batteries, water bottles… and of course lunch! But once you get out there (which often doesn’t take long), and the weather is good, then it’s drones in the air. Drones can be a bit challenging in the High Arctic, only a few hundred km from the magnetic North pole, but more on that in another blog post. We were pretty surprised by how well the data collection went given the potential pitfalls of drone work in this far north, from GPS to weather challenges. All and all it was an incredibly productive trip with over 600 GB of drone data collected!


By the middle of the day, you are getting hungry. Time to eat your sandwich and share your daily chocolate bar – will it be a Mars Bar, Twix, Kit Kat or Coffee Crisp? The views are always stunning whichever way you look as you lunch and the skies are always changing. This summer we had a celestial encounter with a massive fireball exploding over the fjord – to find out more check out Jeff’s account of the meteor (in prep!). And if you read the media reports they say that “nobody saw it”, but we did or some of us did!!!


Once the fieldwork is done and the sun is moving lower in the sky and towards the North it is time to pack up the drone gear and head back to camp. On the way back to our Arctic home of white-painted wooden RCMP buildings you might chance to see an Arctic hare or our fjord companion the Arctic fox. When you get back to camp you can drop the bags, enjoy the views out across the water and head inside to start some metadata recording and to back up all the drone imagery as the dinner preparations progress.


After sched., a leisurely dinner, dishes and once the data are all backed up it could be time for an epic game of Boggle where, if you can’t find actual words, feel free to write down potential new ones like:

Bant (noun) – One unit of banter. e.g., “I met Isla out on the tundra and we had a quick bant before getting back to work”.

Murl (verb) – To spit out one’s tooth paste, but in such a way as there is no spitting involved. Somewhat similar to hurling up your tooth paste, but less active. “We gathered around the slop pit to murl before heading to bed.” (Jeff here: Turns out Murl IS a word. We were close to the correct definition. I want my points!)

Besides, the polar bear ate sections L to M of the dictionary, so if your word starts with any of those letters, no one can prove that your word isn’t real!


After murling, enjoying the midnight rays of the sun glancing off the water, and getting ready for bed, the last person has to bar the door with the long plank. Up at Alex Fjord, we are staying in polar bear country and at all times one needs to be aware that we could get a visit from the year-round, white and fluffy inhabitants of this part of the Arctic. The RCMP buildings get annual winter visits from the local bear who has left his nose and paw prints on the windows and walls.


The end of the day is closing your eyes with the golden light washing over you from the windows, wishing you could stay up longer, but knowing that 7:30am sched. is just a few short hours away.



Running any field experiment can be a gamble.

Running a field experiment four thousand miles from your office, by the side of an alpine lake, set in great tracts of boreal forest in the north of Canada…that is bordering on foolishness.

For the past five years we have been propagating tundra willows in a warmer home. Plucked from icy mountainsides and wind-swept islands, these hardy plants have been relocated to the relative comfort of Kluane Lake, around 8°C warmer than their mother land. The speed at which they have been growing, and the differences across source sites, tells us a lot about how climate change could transform the tundra.

Of course, one problem with studying the effects on climate change is that, well, the climate changes.

This spring, and now on into the summer the rain did not fall.

The common garden experiment this spring

Five years on from their first shoots appearing, many of our tundra willows are not coping well with the heat and the drought. Beasts of Kluane Lake that have put on over a metre of new growth in past years, are this year skeletons, long limbs lying cracked and brown in the heat. And yet other species are soaking up the sun and the heat like tourists abroad. Our field correspondant, Gergana Daskalova, reports:

“The garden looked very different compared to last year! The pulchras are not taking the heat well – the really big willows have lost all their big branches and just have new shoots coming up the bottom now. Richardsonii growing strong though! There were signs of drought damage all around…we will continue watering.”

Here we have “Izzy Rich”, the garden bed named after our 2017 field assistant Izzy!

Perhaps our gamble will still pay off after all. We already have many years of great data, and many willows still alive (for now). And of course, this is itself great data: climate change may help tundra shrubs grow fast and tall – but extreme events could finish many of them off. As with so many questions of science, the excitement is in the discovery.

Meanwhile, a huge thanks to this years’ field team, and particularly to Sian and Lance at Kluane Lake for all your watering.

And now I’m off to check the bookie’s odds for rain.

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By Haydn

Team Shrub goes to the Google Earth Engine Users Summit

It’s hard to imagine that only four months ago we were starting our introductory training in using the Google Earth Engine. Ever since February, we have been dreaming of how we can address our research questions with the Google Earth Engine. The Google Earth Engine allow us to expand our horizons from scaling from plots to landscapes to the entire tundra biome and to quantifying the drivers of biodiversity change around the planet. GEE gives people an easy and efficient access to many global and regional remote-sensing datasets, with the additional possibility to upload your own data. The GEE training we did in London definitely motivated us to advance our JavaScript skills and we were thrilled to travel to Dublin for the Google Earth Engine Users Summit!

We were both intimidated and excited to attend. The thing that struck us most as we walked into the Google Campus in Dublin was seeing our names on the illuminated stairs, which made us feel like we belong in this global community of remote-sensing scientists, conservationists, government researchers, small business and start up communities.

We are ecologists so we don’t always think of ourselves as programmers… how that changed, perception of quantitative skills. We always have our research questions at the forefront of our minds, but it was amazing to explore using a new tool to address. We learned new skills and pushed ourselves farther than we’ve gone before in terms of our quantitative skills.

Our favourite new skills

  • Breakpoint algorithms and LandTrendr

LandTrendr is set of spectral-temporal segmentation algorithms that allow us to detect changes in satellite imagery through time. Applications include monitoring changes in forest cover due to logging and fires, as well as changes in land cover types in general.

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Estimating time of land abandonment near Tyurkmen in Bulgaria using LandTrendr – the lighter the areas, the earlier they were abandoned (starting in 1986).
  • Using the Python API to access the GEE 

We think of ourselves as primarily R users, so it can be daunting to step outside of our comfort zone, but we did it!

Imagery of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island from the Sentinel satellite, as seen through the Python API!
  • Machine-learning and TensorFlow

Outcome-ish: Flowers and stuff about Karol’s dissertation

• Science communication and engagement

We were especially excited about the preview of the user interface app feature for the Earth Engine! We had lots of fun building our first interactive apps and are looking forward to using web apps to share the findings of our research!

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You can check out Gergana’s forest cover change & biodiversity records app here.
  • Maps and embedding google maps into websites.
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Isla’s NDVI app can be explored here.

You can check out Isla’s NDVI

  • Websites and search engine optimisation

We also learned about using Lighthouse to audit website performance. Lighthouse is a great free tool to see how users experience your website, and the suggestions for improvements are quite useful. We changes a few quick things on the Team Shrub website and our performance score sure went up! Though we still have lots of photos that are bound to slow down the website, we quite like sharing photos, so a few seconds of a loading delay is worth it for us!

Hackathon: Drones and the Earth Engine

How can we integrate very high resolution RGB and multispectral drone data into multi-scale analyses?

The drone hackathon was a chance to explore working with drone data in the Earth Engine and a meet up for people to discuss and test the power of the Earth Engine to answer key research questions with drone datasets.

Hackathon: Detecting land abandonment using LandTrendr

Gergana participated in the LandTrendr hackathon, which linked nicely with her research of the effects of land-use intensification and land abandonment on population and biodiversity change through time. During our hackathon, we explored how we can use LandTrendr to detect the timing, magnitude and duration of land abandonment.

We are super inspired by the new skills we have and we can’t wait to get coding! Though of course it’s always great to expand your skill set, the most inspirational part for us was meeting an amazing group of people. From high school students, first year undergraduates to Rebecca Moore, the Director of the Earth Engine and Earth Outreach Programmes, we were thrilled to meet so many motivated and determined people.

Here’s to the Earth Engine and all the important research questions it can help us answer!

By Gergana and Isla

The field season is coming!

Time flies when you’re preparing for fieldwork in the Arctic! From months to weeks to now days of preparation left before we head north to the Arctic there is always much to do! Styrofoam parts have step-by-step turned into drones, permit applications and risk assessments have been submitted and approved, protocol files have been written and refined and our boxes and bags have been piling up and making their way across the ocean ready to head North! Read on to find out more about what is in store for Team Shrub during the 2018 field season!

Our goals for the 2018 field season

Warming of tundra ecosystems is causing rapid rates of ecological change in the Arctic from vegetation change to dramatic permafrost thaw. Recent advances in drone technology allow us to quantify these climate change responses.  This summer, funded by the Royal Geographical Society‘s Walters Kundert Fellowship, we will be testing the correspondence of tundra greenness, productivity, phenology and permafrost disturbance across spatial and temporal scales on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island, Yukon. How quickly is vegetation changing and permafrost thawing and can we predict where in the landscape the most rapid changes might occur? This research will allow us to answer this question and to identify the optimum scale of observation for tundra change.

Drones also allow us to quantify the landscape context of ecological change in ways that were not possible with on-the-ground data collection or satellite observations from space. Funded by a UK-Canada collaboration bursary from the NERC Arctic Office, we will use our drones to capture the representativeness of long-term ecological monitoring at focal research sites including Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Yukon, Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut in collaboration with Greg Henry’s lab at the University of British Columbia and on Svalbard with collaborators from the Norwegian Polar Institute. We will use drones to collect spectral and structural data of tundra vegetation across scales of observation following common protocols established by the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network and will combine these data collection with ongoing ecological monitoring. Are our long-term records of vegetation change really representative of the change going on across the tundra biome? This summer’s research will help us figure out the answer to this key question.

This year for the first time, members of team shrub are off in three directions this summer from West to East and of course North to the Arctic! To find out more about members of the team this year and the specific projects they will be leading – read on!

The 2018 field crew:

How is Arctic plant diversity changing through time? by Gergana

We’ve been monitoring vegetation change on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island for around 10 years now, and we are looking forward to another round of some of the classic tundra protocols – such as pointframing! It’ll be our seventh year of collecting data on the changing plant communities in 12 1x1m plots. Last year we found 32 species in both the Herschel and Komakuk plots, will we spot any new species in the plots this year? An added bonus will be the second run of the ITEX species pool protocol – we will start from the center of our plots and walk around in concentric circles (trying not to get too dizzy), recording all new plant species along the way. We will get the precise locations of the first individuals of each new species, so that then we can link the rate at which we find new species with the characteristic of the landscape, derived from drone imagery! Understanding tundra biodiversity changes at this and the other sites in the International Tundra Experiment Network requires looking beyond the 1x1m plots – a key goal of this summer’s research.

Species Pool Protocol

At what rate are shrubs expanding in the Arctic? by Mariana

Another Qikiqtaruk classic field activity is continuing the repeat time series photographs of Ice Creek (see below). Each year the team captures photos in the same location looking out at the very same view as a photo that was first taken in 1987. In this series of photographs you can clearly see the vegetation change that has been occurring on the island over time. This year’s first aim is, of course, to continue the time series! But we will also take a new approach to quantify shrub growth over time with image analysis software by combining these repeat photographs with plot surveys and drone imagery. This will allow us to precisely quantify the shrub change that has occurred in this flood plain landscape and also enable us to better forecast future responses of shrub expansion across sites in the tundra. Are we seeing this dramatic change because the climate is warming, the growing seasons are getting longer or because this permafrost landscape is thawing releasing more nutrients into this Arctic watershed? Only with more data, will we know the answer.

First Test Flights in North America by Noah

I’m new this year and looking forward to making my way North to the Arctic for the first time to fly drones for Team Shrub. A few newly purchased or built drones were sent to me in Washington, D.C. so I could practice flying before reaching the island. However, DC is the largest ‘No Drone Zone’ in the United States! Once reviewing flight procedures and assembling the drone fleet, Jeff and I drove an hour out of town, outside of the Federal Aviation Administration’s no fly zone, in search of an area suitable for operations. After a few failed attempts, we convinced a farmer to let us use his open field that was mostly used for polo matches on the weekends. This made for ideal conditions to launch and land the fixed-winged platforms. We successfully completed flights with the DJI Mavic Pro and Parrot Disco Pro Ag using the Pix4D capture app for mission planning. Finally, we completed multiple flight missions with the newly built FX-61 fixed wing: Malruk (the number two in Inuvialuktun the language). After two days spent testing drones with minor technical issues, no damaged equipment, and some brutally hot and humid weather, we packed everything in the car and rushed to the airport for Jeff to catch his flight out of town! With drone training complete, I am excited to join up with the field crew and to head up north to go collect some drone data!

Headed to the High Arctic – by Isla

I’ve been working in the Arctic for over a decade now. Seems like a long time ago that I first made my way across the Arctic circle in 2002 to check out the Toolik Lake research station – when I first discovered my love for tundra shrubs. Since then I have been to many tundra locations around the North, but there is one place I have never been – the Canadian High Arctic and Ellesmere Island. For as long as I have been working in Arctic ecosystems, I have been hoping to make it up to the iconic Alexandra Fjord research site. This is one of the longest running tundra ecological monitoring programmes out there led by Greg Henry from the University of British Columbia.  Since 1992, Greg’s Lab have been monitoring the plant communities. Our very own Anne Bjorkman conducted her PhD research at this site. In fact, Team Shrub has been working with data from “Alex” for over five years now, but this summer for the very first time I will actually get to go myself and with the help of Team Shrub collaborator Jeff Kerby add some new drone data collection into the mix. With the data we hope to collect this summer, we hope to contextualize the long-term records from this site. This work will allow researchers to return in future to the precise locations where data collection has occurred for the past three decades. The drone data from this summer will also help us to figure out if long-term ecological monitoring records here, on Qikiqtaruk in the Yukon, and elsewhere in the Arctic are really representative of the responses to global change across the tundra biome.

So, here’s to a productive field season for Team Shrub!  In our final days of field preparation we will be working hard, so that we are as prepared as we can be for the field adventures to come.

By Isla, Gergana, Mariana, Noah

Keeping up with biomes

As we prepare for the upcoming field season, the end of my first PhD year looms closely on the horizon. It then seems like a good moment to recap what has been happening during this intense year and to test whether my elevator pitches have improved since I was first overwhelmed to describe my thesis!

My PhD project has turned out to be a bit unconventional, to say the least. I have always been a fan of the big picture and global issues, so when I decided to do a PhD, it was clear that I would be fully embracing macroecology and biogeography topics. The preliminary title of my thesis (because this is perpetually changing) is ‘Quantifying vegetation shifts under climate change in extreme biomes’. What this means is that I am carrying out a comparison of plant responses in two extreme biomes: the tundra and the savannah, both extensively distributed biomes across the planet. You are probably shaking your head and thinking “but… why?”, which is a perfectly normal first reaction and a question that I have been asked lots over the past year.

Let me explain a bit. As you know, the tundra is found at very cold temperatures with low precipitation, while the savannah is found at high temperatures but with a wider range of rainfall conditions. However, both biomes are characterised by a strong seasonality (i.e. summer is the growing season in the tundra, while the savannah is characterised by a dry and a rainy season). Something else that these two have in common is the fact that they are structurally very similar. Both are characterised by an open landscape dominated by mainly grasses and shrubs, with trees too in the case of the savannah. Their ecological structure and functional groups are very similar, with some authors even referring to the tundra the ‘cold savannah’. If you look at the photos below, can you identify which biome is which?

Hint – no trees is usually a good sign that you are in the tundra and not in the savannah. Elephants could potentially be a helpful indicator too though.

These similarities mean that the tundra and the savannah have been undergoing similar changes under current climatic conditions. The most conspicuous process so far is woody expansion or encroachment (a.k.a. shrubification), where trees and shrubs expand into open areas. Shrubification has been reported widely over the last decades in grasslands across the globe. However, the fact that the tundra and the savannah are found in extreme climatic conditions, which are bound to continue shifting under climate change, means that they could be particularly at risk.

While this is good news for shrubs, which are happily conquering new lands, this comes at the cost of other species, such as lichens and mosses, which end up being outcompeted. Wide scale ecosystem changes like this can also affect the carbon cycle and nutrient exchange, and ultimately, the persistence of these biomes at local scales. The tundra can lose ground to in favour of the boreal forest following warming temperatures, while parts of the savannah can be converted to tropical forest or agricultural lands due to herbivory influence and shifts in wildfire regimes.

The tundra and the savannah are pivotal in supporting biodiversity and providing ecosystem services. For this reason, we need to understand if they are responding in a similar manner to climate change or if their behaviours are highly specific – this will enable us to better predict and act in the face of global change. These rates of change rates are yet to be quantified, so here is where I come in! This is what I have been working on for the past year and hope to have some outcomes soon. Stay tuned for some (hopefully interesting) results in the near future!

By Mariana

Arctic Above – A Team Shrub Photography Exhibition

Our scientific research expeditions to the Arctic often reveal dramatic landscapes, exciting wildlife encounters and lots of natural beauty. We are always keen to widely share those experiences, and one way to bring the Arctic closer to people is through photography. This year, we are continuing our science & art outreach work (you can read more about our outreach events at the Edinburgh Science Festival last year here) by organising a second photography exhibition. This time, in addition to the physical exhibition, we also have an online exhibition, so that anyone with internet access can get a glimpse of Arctic environments, wildlife and ecosystem changes.

We present photographs of Arctic tundra landscapes and the plants and wildlife that inhabit them, captured as a part of scientific research expeditions to the rapidly warming Arctic. Images are captured from above using drones, helicopters or planes and on the ground as we hike out to our research sites. Some of these images are part of scientific datasets used to model the 3D structure of the tundra environment.

This work represents the interface between science and art, where the process of data collection has produced imagery that communicates the reality of global change and captures the patterns and beauty of remote Arctic ecosystems.

Arctic Above – online photography exhibition

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You can explore our photography exhibition online here!

Arctic Above – Exhibition in the Main Library, University of Edinburgh

If you are based in Edinburgh or visiting the city to experience Scottish spring, you can also check out our photos in the Main Library of the University of Edinburgh, first floor on the right. It’s always exciting to see our photos printed in large! It is also cool how even though we all have distinct photographic styles, our photos complement one another so well! We hope those who visit our online exhibit as they make their way into the Library to study for their exams or out to enjoy a bit of spring sunshine get a glimpse of what it is like to study the changing ecosystems of the Arctic.

Sandra and Gergana set up the exhibition in the Main Library – feel free to stop by to check out the photos and tell us what you think on Twitter – @teamshrub #ArcticAbove!

By Gergana

The Plants of Qikiqtaruk. Part 1: The Shrubs

On a cold and distant island the stars of our science are sleepingBuried under a thick winter blanket, Qikiqtaruk in winter is exactly what many people imagine when I say I work in the Arctic: awash with snowdrifts, locked in sea ice, home for polar bears and not a huge amount else.

Qiqiktaruk in winter

Yet here on Team Shrub we study plants. Come the summer sun, green tendrils of life emerge from the snow and the hardy, beautiful and fascinating plant life of the tundra begins to grow. Diverse in the manner of tropical rainforests it may not be, but these cold lands are nonetheless brimming with more life than you might think, featuring old favourites that adorn the hills of Scotland to wacky monstrosities that seem to spring out of some primeval past.

In this series we will be exploring some of our favourite species from our most northern field site, starting with our namesake: the shrubs.

The Shrubs

What makes a shrub? Such has been the dinnertime conversation at many a Scottish Feast. In short: short. Woody. Multi-stemmed. Sometimes evergreen, sometimes deciduous, always beautiful.

The willows

Qikiqtaruk is home to a grand total of nine willow species. Not bad for an isolated Arctic island. The Salix genus dominates much of the upper shin-high canopy, though you can find yourself wading through some of the bigger fellows. Bjorn even reaches chest height. Deciduous, green-leaved, the willows add a certain magic to the tundra as their fluffy seed spirals in the air on a breezy day, while bright red catkins dot the tundra floor underfoot.

Salix pulchra

Possibly our favourite shrub on the island. This beautiful willow surely lives up to its name: long ruby stems and startling emerald-bright diamond leaves, giving Salix pulchra its common name, diamond-leaf willow. On Qikiqtaruk Salix pulchra grows mostly along the ground in large, clonal mats that creep between tussocks of cottongrass and shelter small white Stellaria flowers. It’s one to watch though, as further south this willow can reach well over head height. Here, where the weather is sheltered and nutrients seep from the permafrost, Salix pulchra grows faster, bigger, redder, standing out from its neighbours atop the palsas, while on the hilltops we have already seen a tripling in its canopy height since we first started recording in 1999.

Salix pulchra leaves catching the sunlight. The beautiful willow is a Western Arctic specialist found across tussock tundra and mountain landscapes of the Yukon and Alaska.

Salix richardsonii

One of the giants of Qikiqtaruk, Salix richardsonii, or Richardson’s willow, is the most common tall shrub on the island. It grows mostly in wetter, sheltered areas such as river floodplains, where nutrients flow freely and life is as easy as it gets in this bastion of land in the Arctic ocean. Forming a dense, shrubby canopy of bright green leaves, Salix richardsonii nonetheless has a rather grizzled visage, giving it our nickname ‘Old Man Willow’. Twisted branches and flaking orange-brown bark, flecked with white specks of age or hardship. Fat, hairy stipules easily mark it apart from other willows. A canopy bully, Salix richardsonii is now dominating areas where it can grow, rapidly expanding in many parts of the island as the climate warms.

Encroaching Salix richardsoni is taking over the Ice Creek watershed on Qikiqtaruk. This is one of the tallest willows on the island and elsewhere in the Arctic where in can dominate tundra landscapes with dense, metres tall and sometimes impenetrable thickets of willows.

Salix arctica

This small willow is a remarkable example of the success and resilience of plants in these cold lands. Salix arctica, the Arctic willow, has the most northernmost geographic range of any woody plant, reaching all the way to the north coast of Greenland at 83 degrees north. A ground-hugging, prostrate woody shrub, it spreads woody limbs akimbo, stretching out in all directions along the top of the permafrost. Thin stems become roots, become stems again and it advances clonally, covering much of the surface until it is impossible to tell where one plant begins and another ends. Even if the main “trunk” is destroyed or decays, the plant will not die: an attempt at immortality. Unlike many of the other dwarf willows, Salix arctica eschews the small leaves and catkins of its fellow family members, and sticks to the strategy of the taller shrubs that bigger is better. Big, fat leaves emerge from the brittle stems, which giant fluffy catkins can strike up from the ground surface several times taller than the rest of the plant. Unusually, on Qikiqtaruk even the leaves and stems of Salix arctica strike upwards for the sky, possibly a hybridisation of one kind or another, and can stretch up even as much as 20cm from the soil.

Salix arctica the Arctic willow with flowers blooming in spring. This is one of the most widely distributed plants across the tundra biome found from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the very tip of Greenland.

Salix reticulata

Just like Salix arctica, this dwarf willow hugs the floor with brittle stems and clonal creeping growth in all directions. The thick, leathery leaves of this plant give it its common name: net-leaved willow, which are criss-crossed and pocked with deep grooves. Once fallen in winter, these hardy leaves last, resisting decomposition and creating a crunching carpet underfoot.

The waxy leaves of the net-leaved willow, Salix reticulata. Like with Salix arctica, this is a very widely distributed willow found in much of the Arctic, the Alps and even in Scotland!

Salix polaris and Salix phlebophylla

The smallest of Qikiqtaruk’s willows, these two species take you down onto hands and knees to appreciate their tiny round leaves and stalk-like stems. Hugging the ground in dense mats, often on the drier sections of hillsides or edges of tussocks, I often have trouble telling these apart from leaves alone. Yet catch them right in the season, and the red catkins of the polar willow (Salix polaris) stand out as one of the brightest flashes of red on the tundra, flecks of delicate colour, blood-rich, that in a matter of days dissolve into white and wind.

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The bright red catkins, fluffy white seeds and verdant green leaves of Salix polaris often remind Isla of the colours of Christmas!
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The tiny 2 – 4 mm long leaves of Salix phlebophylla covering the ground in a mat. Named for the skeleton leaves it ‘leaves’ behind year after year, this is one of the smallest willows in the world!

Salix glauca and Salix niphoclada

Two of the rarer tall shrubs on Qikiqtaruk, grey willow (Salix glauca) and snow willow (Salix niphoclada) can be a challenge to find, but occasionally stand out on the hillside where some seed has found its way to establishing. The grey-tinged haze of glauca willows sets them apart from the rest, while the sometimes rose-tinged stems and somewhat brighter leaves of niphoclada can cause us headaches when we search for Salix pulchra to sample. These two willows with green leaves covered in fine grey hairs and stems with a blue-green and waxy look to them can be indistinguishable when they have no visible catkins, which is much of the time, so they are often clumped together in our analyses.

Salix glauca
Less majestic than Salix glauca in other parts of the Arctic, here on Qikiqtaruk this willow can only eek out an existence in the warmest microclimates of south-facing slopes.

Salix alaxensis

Finally, the Goliath of Arctic willows. Salix alaxensis grows tall and often somewhat spindly up on Qikiqtaruk, almost buddleia-like, as if it wants to reach the sun and doesn’t care how it gets there. The leaves are grey-green, but a bright, fluffy white underneath – lannate, densely villous or tomentose if you will. Did you know there are over 20 botanical terms for being hairy! Certainly easy to identify. We have only recently discovered Salix alaxensis, the Alaskan willow, on Qikiqtaruk, though since individuals are already well established, thus it must have been evading detection for many decades.

Isla with a particularly tall Salix alaxensis found on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2016 on a particularly buggy walk back from the retrogressive thaw slumps along the coast.

The birches

Betula nana and Betula glandulosa

If you spend much of your time tramping about the high hilltops of Scotland you may already be familiar with dwarf birch. Small, thickety and brittle, the dense brown stems of Betula nana or Betula glandulosa have snagged many a bootlace and tripped many a toe. Still, I love the Betulas for their leaves alone, some of the most perfect forms on the tundra. On Qikiqtaruk, Betula nana holds sway on flatter patches of hilltop; a low growing shrub that announces its presence as a darker green blur on the landscape, or from the waft of crushed Labrador tea underfoot, which tends to grow alongside birch. Unlike many other tundra sites, where Betula has run rampant as the climate warms, it so far seems to be losing out to the willows here, though in some places the dense, spotted branches form an impenetrable tangle across whole swathes of tundra. As for the difference between nana and glandulosa, the latter is taller, larger leaved, greater noduled. Or not, as the case may be – perhaps they are one species after all, marked apart not by genetics but simply variation.

A very dwarf birch, Betula nana/glandulosa – is it one species or two? – nestled amongst compatriots including Rhododendron tomentosum and Vaccinium vitis-idea (see below).

Tundra tea

Rhododendron tomentosum

A hero of the Arctic smellscape, Rhododendron tomentosum is another favourite of ours. The shrub itself is part beautiful: white flowering baubles full of rich scent, rusted felt underside of leaves, and part ugly: the ash-black branches spindly, frail and commonly dead, dark leaves often matted and speckled, a formless shape creeping amongst better rivals. But altogether outstanding are the leaves themselves. Rhododendron tomentosum, marsh Labrador tea, may not quite have the glamour of its more grandiose and much less marshy southern cousin, but its leaves still bear the scent of a thousand tundra days; that unmistakable and uncapturable spice of terpene and midnight chlorophyll. This is a shrub that makes trait work bearable, and often one that prompts a pocket full of leaves for the walk home.


We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), Ledum (its old name), I got to get some!

The berry bearers

Arctostaphylos rubra (Arctous rubra)

One for the photo albums. A. rubra, or bearberry, is certainly one of the more iconic tundra shrubs due to its bright, Rudolph-red leaves that can stain the bare tundra at certain times of year. Another prostrate-growing shrub, the ovate, vein-y leaves can bear a resemblance to the leather coins of Salix reticulata when green, though are stretched and less waxy. It is when the winter begins to draw in that Arctostaphylos rubra sets itself apart as the leaves turn, and formerly invisible patches of bearberry shine out. Red too, the berries that hide in amongst the leaves: a food source for humans and wildlife alike, though their diuretic properties also lend themselves to herbal medicines and may explain the preponderance of stained bear poo littering the tundra in autumn. A closely related species, Arctous alpina, looks almost identical except for the red berries that turn black when ripe.

The bright red leaves of Arctostaphylos rubra in the autumn intermixed with some Vaccinium uliginosum.
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Arctous alpina the black berries of alpine or ‘black’ bearberry.

Vaccinium vitis-idea and Vaccinium uliginosum

Another set of plants that will be well known to hillwalkers, the Vaccinium genus is the main fruit bearer for local people and hungry researchers. The smallest, Vaccinium vitis-idea (Ligonberry, cranberry, cowberry – you name it!), carpets the surface with tiny, glossy leaves and even glossier red berries where cover is sparse and soils fairly dry. In places the leaves can turn to a deep, merlot red, or still drip with pink-white cowbell flowers. Harder to find on Qikiqtaruk, Vaccinium uliginosum (blueberry, bilberry etc.) rise higher from the undergrowth where soils are wetter, their berries blue, stems tough brown-green and leaves thinner and more leathery.

Vaccinium vitis-idaea (and Empetrum nigrum). These Arctic cranberries make a delicious pie and jam if you have the patience to pick enough!

Rubus chamaemorus

Cloudberry, baked apple, or knotberry in England and averin in Scotland is best known on Qikiqtaruk as aqpik. This is one of the most prized of berries in this part of the world and when perfectly ripe is a delicious topping to pancakes, makes an excellent jam or is the perfect snack when stopping across the tundra. Quick to turn from unripe to rotten, finding your patch of cloudberries in season on Qikiqtaruk can be a challenge.  It is rare out there, preferring the wetter habitats on the edges of ponds or in ice-wedge terrain.

The delicate salmon pink berries of ripe aqpik or cloudberry.

Empetrum nigrum

A heathery-looking dwarf shrub that is equally at home in the Scottish Highlands, on mountaintops around the northern hemisphere, under conifer canopies of the boreal forest, and in vast swathes of tundra. Also a clonal shrub, Empetrum nigrum can form dense mats stretching uninterruptedly for meters, or even tens of meters. Its super-power is allelopathy: the leaves contain toxic chemicals which, when leached into the ground after the rain, hinder germination or growth of other plant species. Fun fact: the wood smells delicious when boiled in water (don’t ask, and probably don’t drink).

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The bright leaves and black berries of Empetrum nigrum

The dwarf evergreens

Dryas integrifolia

The spear shaped leaves of the mountain avens is to me another iconic shape of the tundra. Whether forming into a sharp coniferous tip, or padded out into the more billowy, deciduous-tree form of Dryas octopetala, these OS map symbols of leaves are unrecognisable wherever they grow. But for many, Dryas integrifolia is best known for its flowers – the perfect white circles that polka-dot the tundra floor – and for the twisted filaments that are the phoenix seedhead, catching the sunrays and diffracting light and themselves across the tundra air.

The bright white flowers of Dryas integrifolia.
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Twisting filaments of Dryas integrifolia as the flowers set seed at the end of the summer.

Cassiope tetragona

Growing amongst the rocks and along the dry hillsides, the weeping white bells of Arctic bell heather are another distinctive site at the height of a tundra summer. A relative of the glorious purple heather of the Scottish hills, Cassiope tetragona is similarly small and woody, minute spear-shaped leaves wrapped tight into the stem, forming scaly round limbs. As the season turns, these stems gradually shift from green to orange-brown, giving the tundra an almost burnt look, flowers rusting away to leave the brittle seed heads proud to the wind.

Cassiope tetragona with four flower heads as per it’s name is one of the longest lived of tundra shrubs, with individuals being found that can be dated back to over 200 years.

Bonus: The uncategorised

Silene acaulis

If you’ve reached this far, well done for getting to the end. As a special bonus, I’ve included Silene acaulis, better known as moss campion. There is some confusion here as to whether Silene acaulis is best classed as a shrub or a forb. Silene as a genus refers to the campions, delicate flowers of field and rocks, all pink and white and herbaceous green leaves. Yet the harsher climates to which Silene acaulis has adapted produces a hardy, cushion-like shrub, past leaves compressed into woody stems. For myself, I class this bright plant as a forb, yet since I have seen it classed otherwise so under some schemes, it is worth a brief mention here.

The resilient and secretive Silene acaulis

Beyond confusion of classification, Silene acaulis is by no means one to be relegated to the bottom of any list. It grows where often nothing else will, building a bivouac out of its own sharp leaves against the elements. Within this thick shell, the plant can grow to engulf surrounding rocks occasionally supporting other tiny plants as they grow through chinks in its armour. Most spectacular are the pink-purple flowers, which at the height of the summer dot these minuscule mountains like dewdrops, or like pins in a pin-cushion. Silene acaulis is rare on Qikiqtaruk – the soft, undulating landscape means there are few surfaces too harsh for competitors. But I have seen one once, in passing, making a mental note to come back to sample it later. I have never found one since.

A rare find for Qikiqtaruk, a bit of Silene acaulis, spotted by Isla in the summer of 2017.

By Haydn, Sandra and Isla

Our Google Earth Engine adventure

We love big bold questions. Synthesising data over large spatial and temporal scales and bringing together information from different sources to support our findings. Along the way, we have our trusty SuperShrub (our mini-supercomputer), but there are some things even SuperShrub can’t handle, or can’t do in the most efficient way. So how can one extract NDVI, land cover, climate data and more over thousands and thousands of kilometers and across many, many days, months and years? Why with the Google Earth Engine!

Hanging out at the Google Academy in London – where life is a beach!

Last week, Isla, Jakob, Sam and Gergana headed to London to attend a training workshop led by Noel Gorelick and Nick Clinton. A rainy morning in London with travel delays for some and generally long train rides for all wasn’t a particularly promising start, but it turns out we were off to the beach. We escaped the cold and rain at the Google Academy, where there was a strong beach theme, with colourful beach balls, giant beach chairs and even sand and faux sea grass in the corners of the room. With dreams of working with MODIS, Landsat, Hansen data and more, we were ready to tackle JavaScript and see how we can use the Earth Engine to expand our research horizons. And what did we learn??? Read on to find out.

They even have inflatable unicorns at the Google Academy!

The Earth Engine is fast. Very fast!

Gergana: Being able to quickly access and extract land use information for thousands of locations around the world is a key part of my PhD research on the drivers of biodiversity change. I had heard the Earth Engine is fast, and I knew that one of the datasets I am working with, the Hansen et al. Forest Cover Database, is accessible through the engine, but I am also stubborn and I love R! So many a day were spent trying to push R and SuperShrub to their limits… and well, the code never finished running, as I stopped it after a week of waiting! That is why I was pretty excited to see the Hansen database mentioned in the presentation prior to the workshop, and I couldn’t wait to try extracting information. I adapted some of the code we learned in the workshop and a bit of code I found online, and what do you know, 42 seconds (only 42 seconds!) later, I had a csv with thousands of rows specifying the forest loss and gain in 2001-2014 for the areas I was interested in. Amazing!

A zoomed in view of forest cover change based on the Hansen et al. database. Red is loss, purple is loss and gain and blue is gain.

The Earth Engine is flexible!

Isla: In a one-day workshop, we covered a lot of ground – from pixel classification, spectral unmixing to phenology analyses. We had a chance to explore the greening of our focal field site Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island all the way up to the greening of the Arctic! We knew that the Earth Engine was a powerful platform, as some of us had dabbled before, but it is great to finally get a better understanding of what the possibilities are. The Earth Engine could be a game changer for earth observation. Below you can see MODIS NDVI trends for our focal research site all the way up to the Western Arctic at 1 km resolution, all calculated in under 10 minutes.  You can see pixels with active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping getting browner and the less disturbed tundra vegetation getting greener at the local scale and the patterns of greening and browning in the Western Arctic region.

Greening Arctic
The greening of the Arctic from Qikiqtaruk to the entire Western Arctic calculated using the Google Earth Engine. Green pixels are sites where the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) is increasing (robust regression), brown pixels are where the NDVI is decreasing. You can see browning pixels in areas influenced by active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping at the local scale plot and greening pixels where we have evidence of tundra vegetation change. And at the larger scale you can see the strong greening pattern in the Western Arctic near our field site.

Taking time out of our usual routine to learn new things is important.

Team Shrub recently met to discuss our New Year’s resolutions, and one of our general life goals – “to keep learning new things” – was pretty high up on that list. It’s not always easy to make time for new things in our busy lives, but sometimes it is just something that you have to make happen. Even if it involves taking many trains and feeling motion sick on every single one! As much as we love coordinating Coding Club and teaching students quantitative skills at the University of Edinburgh, it’s also nice to be the one being trained and getting to attend a coding workshop from time to time!

So, for Team Shrub, harnessing the power of the Earth Engine might allow us to expand our horizons from scaling from plots to landscapes to the entire tundra biome and to quantifying the drivers of biodiversity change around the planet.  And now that the training is over, we can’t wait do dig in deeper and explore our earth observation research questions in a whole new way.

By Gergana and Isla