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 by 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 by 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 by 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 by Malkolm Boothroyd.

The science behind The Hidden Arctic Project

The planet is changing at an increasingly high pace, with the consequences of climate change reaching far across the Earth’s biomes. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the Arctic tundra, which is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Our project will contribute to precisely quantifying ongoing and future biodiversity change across these unique yet threatened northern landscapes.

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Our project will capture how plant biodiversity in the Arctic is changing in a warmer climate – shifts that might then echo through the whole ecosystem. Infographic by Gergana Daskalova.

A long-term perspective on Arctic change

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Year after year, scientists return to the same plots to capture temporal shifts in plant communities across the tundra. Photo by Mariana García Criado & Gergana Daskalova.

A pin drops in the tundra. And then 11,999 more pin drops follow. Metal pins like this one are one of our key tools in monitoring the changes in plant communities on Qikiqtaruk. By recording the types of plants the pin touches every time we drop it, we can get insights into the number and types of species found from one year to the next.

Biodiversity change beyond the plots

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Extensive surveys from the ground and the sky help us discover the tundra’s hidden diversity – soon the tundra will light up with orange flags, each one marking the precise location of a plant species. Photo by Kayla Arey.

With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. To understand these shifts in tundra ecosystems, we need to look beyond the plots and capture the landscape context of biodiversity change – all the species lurking just outside of the plots and the types of habitats (for example, warmer or cooler, wetter or drier) they are most often found in. This so-called “dark biodiversity” can be the hidden source of future biodiversity change in the Arctic that might then go on to influence how the entire ecosystem functions.

Links across scales

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We will record the precise location of the first individual of each new plant species we find – these locations will then be the link between our ground and aerial surveys, and between the plot-scale and landscape-scale biodiversity change. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

We will combine plant and drone surveys to capture two complementary perspectives on biodiversity change in the tundra – the types of species that occur across these shifting landscapes, and the microhabitats they occupy. By linking ground and aerial observations, we will be able to discover the explicit hotspots of biodiversity across different types of topography and microclimate, and quantify if the rates of biodiversity change are intensifying with rising temperatures.

Stay tuned as we pack our pin flags (and many other boxes of equipment) and head north to begin our search for the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity.

By Gergana Daskalova

The science behind our journey

The Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the globe and has already warmed by two degrees Celsius (nearly four degrees Fahrenheit) in the last half century. This warming is melting sea ice, thawing permafrost – permanently frozen ground – and changing the tundra environment. And as the tundra warms, plants are responding.

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Pondering permafrost and Arctic greening on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

In recent decades, scientists and people living around the Arctic have started to notice a much broader transformation and from space, the Arctic now appears much greener than it used to be. Making sense of how rapidly the tundra is changing is critical for understanding global climate change for the planet as a whole.

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This is what vegetation change can look like – increases in shrubs. Photos by Team Shrub.

While we are certain that the Arctic is changing, the scientific findings to date are also full of contradictions. For instance, not all satellites seem to agree on which areas are greening. In some places, satellites suggest big landscape changes, but they aren’t obvious on the ground – and vice versa. But satellite pixels can be as large as nearly 10,000 soccer fields and long-term monitoring plots can be as small as 1 x 1 m or the size of the surface of a card table. This is a massive scale gap!

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Drones are providing new tools to monitor changing Arctic landscapes. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

 

Is our understanding of Arctic change hampered by the fact that we aren’t collecting data at the most useful scales to connect the dots between warming and plant responses? Drones will allow us to bridge this gap to disentangle how tundra ecosystems are responding to climate warming across these frozen landscapes.

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Tundra ecosystems are surprisingly diverse given the only two-month long summer. Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. Scientists have been monitoring plots across the landscape for over two decades to track the rate of this biodiversity change.

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Meter-squared plots are how vegetation change has previously been monitored across the Arctic. Photo by Mariana García Criado and Gergana Daskalova.

But what about the species found outside of plots? How many species have escaped the notice of scientists over time – the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity? Will uncovering this so called “dark diversity” influence our estimates of how tundra biodiversity will change in the future?

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Team Shrub pictured here in 2018 is heading back to the Arctic this summer. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Team Shrub has been working for over 10 years to figure out how high latitude ecosystems are responding to the rapidly warming climate. In the summer of 2019, we’re heading back to the Yukon Arctic Coast and Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island to study the rapidly changing Arctic. This year’s team is made up of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Purdue University. Our research will identify the hotspots of change across the landscape that satellite and long-term yet small-scale observations might be missing.

Let the science and the adventures begin!

By Isla Myers-Smith

The Hidden Arctic

A changing Arctic

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From the ground to the ice and water, climate change is altering life across the Arctic. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

 

The Arctic is changing in striking ways. Temperatures are rising, sea ice is melting and permafrost is thawing, fundamentally transforming tundra landscapes. But change in the Arctic is not always obvious – in fact, sometimes it is hidden. Amidst shrubs, tucked behind stones and often surviving in the most improbable of places, many tundra plants remain unnoticed by scientists. Discovering this hidden biodiversity can help us understand how life on Earth is being altered at its northernmost extremes.

Dark diversity

Dark diversity
Surprisingly, the tundra is home to tens and sometimes even hundreds of plant species, each with unique adaptations allowing them to survive in the Arctic. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

From afar, arctic landscapes might appear monotonic. Shades of white and blue blend into greens and browns as the midnight sun returns to the tundra. Looking closer, however, reveals a marvelously diverse world of plants. Plants are among the first species to respond to climate change. With taller statures, denser canopies and new species moving in, arctic plant communities are continuously being reshuffled as temperatures warm. But this might not be the full picture of biodiversity change in the Arctic. It is time to look beyond the traditional small-scale monitoring plots and discover what diversity lurks across the landscape but has never been detected before. These species represent the tundra’s dark diversity.

Web of life

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From plants to herbivores and carnivores like this snowy owl, life in the Arctic is made up of intricate connections. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

 

Capturing the Arctic’s dark diversity and where it resides – in the warmer or cooler, drier or wetter parts of the landscape – will help us make predictions of how plant biodiversity will shift as the climate continues to warm. If a warmer Arctic means more species moving out across the landscape beyond the warmest hiding spots, these changes will echo through the entire ecosystems, influencing the plants, but also the animals that depend on them for food.

Everything is connected in the Arctic and when one species shifts this could lead to cascades across the interdependent web of life in the tundra.

Northern discoveries

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Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island Territorial park supports a collaborative long-term ecological monitoring program, making it a key focal site for Arctic research. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Our goal is to find and document the dark diversity of Qikiqtaruk – an arctic island off the Yukon coast in Canada. With eyes closely scanning the ground and drones capturing the vast Arctic landscapes, we will reveal some of the tundra’s best kept biodiversity secrets. As we embark on our scientific treasure hunt, researchers from across the tundra biome will go on a search of their own. Our dark diversity protocol will travel across sites, and with each newly detected plant species, we will be getting closer to understanding ongoing and future shifts across northern ecosystems.

Some of us never even imagined they would see the Arctic. For other members of our expedition, the Arctic is home. Qikiqtaruk brought us together and we are so excited to explore the rapidly changing tundra landscapes as a team.

Follow our journey as we discover stories of hidden biodiversity and unique experiences at the northern edges of the world.

#HiddenArctic

@gndaskalova @TeamShrub

The Greening Arctic

The Greening Arctic

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Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

The frozen Arctic

Every summer in the Arctic, a dark frozen landscape rapidly transforms into a vibrant tundra ecosystem rich with plants and wildlife. This remarkable yet brief transition from 24-hour darkness to midnight sun creates a tundra teaming with life which has drawn scientists north for decades. The answers to big questions about how, where, and why life survives can be found here at the climate extremes of the planet.

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Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A transforming tundra

Over the last half century, scientists and people living around the Arctic have started to notice a much broader transformation. Tundra landscapes are fundamentally changing, and from space, the Arctic now appears much greener than it used to be! Sea ice breaks up earlier in spring and returns later in fall. Wildlife such as moose and beaver are moving north. Bare ground is becoming vegetated and where plants once grew they’re now growing taller. This may be the biggest biological signal of climate change anywhere on the planet.

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Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

Life at extremes

The Arctic, where life is shaped by an extreme climate, holds the key to our understanding of global patterns of diversity and species interactions. However, the scientific findings to date are full of contradictions. For instance, not all satellites seem to agree on which areas are greening. In some places, where satellites suggest big landscape changes, those changes aren’t obvious on the ground – and vice versa. Detailed records of vegetation change collected over decades can miss species lurking just outside of monitoring plots. And it is this hidden biodiversity that could be what will reshape the Arctic landscapes of the future.

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Photo by Anne Bjorkman.

Thawing carbon

Making sense of how rapidly the tundra is changing is critical for understanding global climate change. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth. These high latitudes are home to a third of the planet’s soil carbon – that is vulnerable to loss as the region warms. And if that frozen carbon is released, it will further warm the planet as a whole. The changing Arctic affects us all.

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Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

Team shrub

We are Team Shrub – a group of scientists, photographers and drone pilots. We’re heading to the Yukon Arctic Coast and Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island this summer to study the rapidly changing Arctic as we have for the past decade. We will work alongside local collaborators, and share an inside account of our journey.

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Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

Join us along the way!

#TeamShrub

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Meet Team Shrub: Jeff

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A brief intro and pre-departure thoughts from long-time Team Shrub collaborator, expedition photographer, and Arctic scientist Jeff Kerby:

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

By Jeff Kerby

Meet Team Shrub: Luke

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I’m Luke Hull, a certified drone pilot and an undergraduate student at Purdue University majoring in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), part of the school of aviation. The course of studies includes construction, operations and data analysis of unmanned systems solutions as well as general aviation operations and aircraft maintenance. My passion for unmanned systems, combined with my love for the outdoors, has sparked my interest in working with and creating innovative solutions for unmanned aerial systems in different environmental applications. For as long as I can remember I have had a love for exploration, I am more than excited to embark on my first trip to the Arctic!

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Flying drones on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the summer of 2019. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

By Luke Hull

Meet Team Shrub: Kayla

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Team member Kayla Arey. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

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

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Kayla on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2018. Photo by Cameron Eckert.

By Kayla Arey

Meet Team Shrub: Noah

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Returning from a successful drone flight after a smooth landing in the surrounding cottongrass. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

I’m Noah Bell, a member of Team Shrub for the past year, and I am passionate about drones and climate science.

Where I grew up, in Washington, DC, it is illegal to fly drones anywhere in the city, so I had to travel well outside the beltway to practice. I studied civil engineering at the University of Vermont (UVM) and worked at the school’s Spatial Analysis Lab, an applied research facility that uses geospatial technology to assess a wide variety of environmental and human resource needs. While earning my engineering degree, my research lab experience exposed me to imaging projects that included emergency planning for developing nations and using drones to map invasive species, inundation areas, and riverbank erosion. During my third year, I became a certified drone pilot and was sent to fly mapping missions in such exotic locations around the US as Lake Tahoe, Hawaii, and the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Noah flying drones
When you’re not in the Arctic, it can be tricky to find places to fly drones.

Last summer after graduating from UVM, I joined Team Shrub as the drone pilot for the climate-vegetation research team heading to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. There, I fulfilled my dream of being able to fly a drone anywhere I wanted, so long as the weather, winds, mosquitoes and wildlife cooperated. But it was on the ground, working with the amazing biologists and ecologists during their annual study of the island, that was the most rewarding experience. The summer was extremely rich in new perspectives while learning about climate impacts on Arctic ecosystems from the researchers themselves.

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Flight planning on the tundra. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

I have recently moved back to Washington, DC to work at a local engineering firm where I hope to get authorization to use drones to monitor the health of green roofs used to store stormwater and keep the city’s rivers clean from sewage runoff. But part of me wants to be back where, once you’ve got permits and certificates approved by the Canadian government, the only authority needed to carry out drone research is nature itself.

By Noah Bell