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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.


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

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: 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: 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: 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.


A distorted view of the Arctic tundra in Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. (Original photo: 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: 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 not slowing down this year 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: 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 before our time. (Photo: 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

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: 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: Malkolm Boothroyd.


To capture tundra greenness across the landscape, we will use Parrot Disco Pro Ag drones with the Sequoia multispectral sensor. (Photo: Gergana Daskalova).


For large-scale RGB work we have also brought along our home-built Zeta FX-61 Phantom fixed wing drones. (Photo: Jeffrey Kerby).


To capture our tundra field site using video and photography from the air, we will use a DJI Mavic 2 Pro. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).

The camera kit


For photography, Gergana will be shooting with a Canon 7D Mark II camera. (Photo: 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: Isla Myers-Smith).


To capture movement of water and clouds, Gergana will take long exposure shots with Lee filters. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).


To keep her camera steady, Gergana will use a Manfrotto befree Live tripod. (Photo: 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: 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: 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: 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

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: 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: 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: 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: 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

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. Mud cliffs eroding into turquoise waters – a relic of the last ice age and an island under constant change with belugas swimming by. Photos 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

Northwards

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been gradually going further and further north. From Sofia, to Edinburgh, to Vancouver, to Whitehorse, to Kluane, to Inuvik and now finally we have arrived on Qikiqtaruk – a journey of thousands of kilometres from my European home to 70 degrees north in the Canadian Arctic. I jumped off the final charter flight to the sands of the beach airstrip on Qikiqtaruk on the 5th July. Almost two weeks have passed since I packed my first bag in Edinburgh. Along the way, I accumulated many more bags and at each stop, the tundra felt closer and closer. Familiar faces, characteristic plants, challenges I’ve learned to anticipate and others I didn’t see coming. Now, I am looking out the window to the Arctic ocean. I am finally here. Here are some of the key tell-tell signs of a journey northwards.

A blooming tundra

Along the highways of the Southern Yukon, you can see the same plants that you can find 1000 km to the north in the Arctic tundra. Tundra plants are rarely the most obvious of plants. With their low stature to avoid the high winds, they are often small and easily thought to be all the same. But come June and July, there is no mistake – the tundra is more diverse than one might expect. For a brief period in the summer, a blooming tundra with flowers in all colours of the rainbow lights up the landscape. A great time to capture the biodiversity of the Arctic that might be overlooked in other seasons or when surveying only very small areas.


As we made our way further and further up north, we saw more of the tundra’s plants. We would soon see them again, but beyond the Arctic circle. Photo: Gergana Daskalova

Northern wildlife

A thousand kilometres south of Qikiqtaruk, along the shores of Kluane Lake, we could feel the tundra not just from the plants, but also from the wildlife. Here, herbivores like ground squirrels, voles and lemmings play a key role in ecosystems. By limiting the growth and spread of a handful of dominant plant species, herbivores indirectly create space for other, rarer, species to establish and persist as well, making for a more diverse tundra.


A young ground squirrel dashes among the grass tussocks munching on juicy new shoots. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

A constant buzz in the air

The soundscape of the Arctic always includes a certain kind of buzz. A buzz that gets louder and louder the more north you go (and the closer you are to wet and marshy areas). Mosquitos are a big part of any journey north – constant companions that you sometimes don’t notice, other times they drive you mad.


Swarms of mosquitos buzz around in the air, sometimes straight into spider webs. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

A mix of hectic preparations and tranquillity

An arctic expedition takes a lot of planning and preparation. And it’s all done under the looming knowledge that whatever we forget to bring, we will have to do without. Whatever we don’t manage to get done in time, we might not be able to do once we are in the field away from towns, stores and the internet. Packing more and more boxes doesn’t quite seem to shake away the feeling of something escaping your mind. But after the hectic preparations, comes a sense of acceptance. I am here on Qikiqtaruk and I have what I have. There will surely be things I haven’t thought of, but until then, a wide diversity of tundra plants awaits to be discovered, and I can’t wait to begin the exploration.

Words by Gergana Daskalova


A tranquil sunset just before we began the final leg of our journey northwards. On Qikiqtaruk, I will be combining surveys from the ground and the sky to capture the diversity of plants in the Arctic that we might otherwise overlook using traditional small-scale monitoring. Photo: Malkolm Boothroyd.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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!

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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!!!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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