The Team Shrub remote field season

This year is a year unlike any other. In 2020, our best laid plans of fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic were overturned by a global pandemic. Field scientists around the world had to halt their field programs, creating gaps in decades-long datasets. But safety first, along with beauty and fun, is the Team Shrub motto and the safety of the northern communities in which we work is paramount, so we have decided to plan an entirely new type of field season – a remote one. The pandemic has brought us working from home, online lab meetings, online talks and conferences, can we also have a remote field season? Can we address our field research goals (or some of them) from our existing data and anything being collected by satellites in the summer of 2020? With this blog post, we will share our Team Shrub 2020 remote field season.

The new mode of conducting collaborative remote field research involves weekly lab meetings online rather than 24 hours together in a tiny cabin in the Arctic.

As the Robbie Burn’s poem states: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley” (translation: “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”). In 2020, funded through a NERC UK – Canada collaboration bursary with the Canadian Airborne Biodiversity Observatory project and Canadian and international partners, we were going to set out to test how microclimate influences plant productivity, phenology and biodiversity patterns across the landscape. But when the field plans were put on hold until 2021, we went back to the drawing board to ask which of our research questions we could still ask with our existing data and satellite remote sensing. During our remote field season, still funded by the NERC Arctic Office, we have a number of research goals summarised in the following research questions.

How do the following vary with microclimate in tundra ecosystems?

  1. Plant productivity – the tundra greenness derived from multipspectral drone data
  2. Plant phenology – the timing of leaf out, flowering and yellowing of leaves
  3. Spectral diversity – the variation in the light spectra reflected off of the land surface

Mapping tundra microclimates

Tundra plant responses to warming are influenced by the local climate conditions in which plants grow. Research to-date indicates that warmer and wetter microclimates are experiencing more vegetation change. If microclimate is a major driver of tundra plant responses to warming, we will need additional landscape-level information to make accurate future projections of Arctic vegetation change. Since we can’t get to the field in person, by compiling our existing data including temperature, active layer, soil moisture, phenocam, shrubrings, decomposition and drone data we can still tackle these questions. PhD student Elise’s research will address these questions in collaboration with the rest of Team Shrub and our other collaborators such as Anne, Gerte and Jeff. Perhaps, we can answer some of the mysteries of microclimate with our existing data and new analyses during our remote field season.

This somewhat psychedelic image is the microclimate of tundra plants. Using drone imagery, Elise is estimating the microclimate for tundra plants on Qikiqtaruk using the Microclima package. South-facing slopes are warming and lower ground is usually wetter. But, how does this variation influence the growth of tundra plants?

Gauging tundra greening

Last summer through the Greening Arctic project, we mapped island-scale tundra greenness using drones and the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment project airborne data collection. Now we can compare the greenness derived from satellites with tundra microclimates to understand what controls where the greenest parts of the landscape are and how that greenness is captured by sensors on drones, planes and satellites across spatial scales. The remote field season team and Jeff and our collaborators through the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network project are working to answer this very question with our data from our field site on Qikiqtaruk on the Arctic coast of the Yukon and other locations around the Arctic.

Flying drones across the tundra in 2019 to map out tundra greenness across the landscape. (photo credit: Gergana Daskalova)

Inspecting the tundra hyperspectrally

Our research goals for the field season of 2020 were to conduct the main Arctic field season of the CABO project. We were going to capture tundra vegetation from leaves to landscapes using hyperspectral data. That field work will move to 2021 (we hope), but luckily through the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project flights in 2019 and some preliminary data collection from 2018 and 2019, we can begin to explore how hyperspectral data relate to tundra microclimates and plant biodiversity. This work will form the basis of future Team Shrub research by our starting PhD students in 2020 and through collaborations with the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network, CABO and NASA ABoVE projects. We are hoping that our remote field season will provide a head start on the data collection in 2021.

The flight lines for the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment data collection on Qikiqtaruk in 2019. With these and on the ground data we can begin to explore how tundra plant communities and biodiversity can be detected using hyperspectral data beyond what is visible to the naked eye.

Photographing tundra phenology

From 2016 to 2019 – and hopefully also in 2020 if the batteries last and the muskox behave – we have been setting out time-lapse cameras across the landscape to capture plant phenology. These so-called phenocams provide a high temporal resolution record of the day-to-day and even hour-to-hour changes of plants. We can measure the exact moment that a bud bursts, a flower opens or the tips of the leaves turn yellow each summer giving us a really precise picture of how tundra plants grow across the two-month long Arctic summers. During our remote field season, Joe and Maude have been going through the accumulated phenocam data identifying each moment that the plants leaf out, flower and senesce over time. We can then test how the plant phenology is influenced by the microclimates in which the plants grow, to help us to better understand phenology change with climate warming. Will a bear or muskox show up in the previous years’ phenocam data? – it looks like they have!

Meet the remote field team

Our remote field season will be led by first year PhD student Elise and Team Shrub field assistants Shawn and Maude, Isla is on standby to help with logistics, Team Shrub alumni Joe and external collaborator Ali have signed up as well for our virtual trip to the Arctic Coast of the Yukon through data. Some participants even get to go to a field site in Arctic Sweden this summer such as co-supervised PhD student Gerte! Our remote field season crew has been trying to live the life of the field ecologists from our pandemic locations. As Joe says: “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”. And clearly based on our dress, we would rather be off in the Arctic doing fieldwork!

Joe measuring tundra plant phenology remotely using time-lapse camera data from his kitchen table – I guess it can be quite cold even indoors during the Scottish summer.

In August, through quarantines and perseverance, Isla actually made it north to the Yukon. Not as far as Qikiqtaruk and our Arctic site, but on a visit to the Outpost Research Station in the Kluane Region of the Southern Yukon. There she visited the seven-year long common garden experiment where we are exploring the limits of growth of tundra willows when released from their cold tundra environments into the much warmer Boreal forest. This year has been a rainy and cool summer in the Southern Yukon, unlike the Arctic heatwave in Siberia, which is very much to the taste of the tundra willows, and they have continued to grow beyond expectations. In just seven years, some shrubs are over two metres in diameter and over half a metre tall. Other shrubs are just eking out an existence Arctic-style by keeping their annual growth to a minimum. From the air you can see the variation in growth among these Arctic and alpine willows. In the remote field season, we can compile all seven years of data and begin to write up our results of how tundra shrubs might be expected to respond as the Arctic warms up to temperatures beyond the current day conditions. Thanks to Amaya, Judy and Iain for help with the data collection!

The common garden in 2020 with Isla waving for scale. Some of those shrubs are turning into monsters in the oldest beds of the garden planted in 2013. How big will they get? Only time will tell. (photo credit: Iain Myers-Smith)

This summer, the Team Shrub adventures are a bit different than in the past. But we’ll keep you posted on our research progress and regale you with stories of a remote field season. With far fewer mosquitoes and maybe more sedentary research adventures, we hope the research achievements will be just as exciting! Stay tuned to hear about our 2020 remote field season findings.

If you want to hear more about our research and our remote field season plans check out this podcast!
Arctic Adaptation – An Interview With Dr. Isla Myers-Smith

If you want to read more about our recent drone research check out this article published this week!
Drones Help Bridge the Gaps in Assessing Global Change

Photo credit: Iain Myers-Smith

Team Shrub hosts Real Scientists

This week Team Shrub is doing our first social media takeover.  We’ll be hosting Real Scientists on Twitter!

To read about our three primary tweeters this week, check out the Real Scientists blog post.

Here are some quotes from the post:

Real Scientists is diving into the fascinating world of northern ecosystems with Team Shrub! That’s right — we have THREE scientists on deck this week! Team Shrub (@TeamShrub) is the lab of Dr Isla Myers-Smith (@IslaHMS), Chancellor’s Fellow in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh. She’s joined by PhD students Gergana Daskalova (@gndaskalova) and Elise Gallois (@e_gallois).

A bit about the three of us from the post:

Welcome to Real Scientists! How did you get started in science?

Isla Myers-Smith: My parents were ecologists, so you could argue that ecology is the family business. My parents have always been my most important scientific mentors. Even though my own career has led me in new directions, whether it was counting tent caterpillars or finding sparrow nests, my parents provided the foundation and inspiration for my own scientific career.

My love of the Arctic was first inspired by a family trip to the Yukon and time spent on the tundra when I lived in Alaska. There is something magical about the lands beyond the treeline that has always captured my imagination. Being up North and watching sometimes dramatic change play out before my eyes has captured my scientific curiosity. In my research, I want to figure out how tundra ecosystems are changing as the climate warms so that we can better predict the future of our planet.

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What does your work involve, and where does it take you?

Gergana Daskalova: Way back in sixth grade, a friend of mine said she saw a woodpecker over the weekend. I got intrigued and read a bit about woodpeckers, went to visit my grandpa in the countryside hoping to spot one, and then kept returning to the village for the birds, the nature and the garden. In ninth grade looking through a guide of uni degrees, I stopped at E — for Ecology — and didn’t look any further.

I am a global change ecologist — my work focuses on how the variety of life on Earth — the planet’s biodiversity — is being altered by land-use change, climate change, land abandonment and other types of environmental shifts. In my work, I harness the power of the recorded observations of hundreds of scientists and volunteers to find the answer to the question — how does global change influence biodiversity? From forest cover change around the world to climate warming in the Arctic and more, I am studying how the world’s ecosystems and the millions of species they support are changing over time.

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What keeps you motivated and what do you want the public to know about your work?

Elise Gallois: The Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than the global average, and this warming is triggering potentially huge landscape changes including widespread accelerated plant growth. While this sounds like a ‘good news story’, these changes have the potential to further alter the climate system even more as a greener Arctic will absorb more of the sun’s heat. I think the public should care about these processes because what happens in the Arctic does not necessarily stay in the Arctic, and also because the tundra ecosystem is really cool and misunderstood!

I love writing and performing stand up comedy! I’ve recently started performing ‘science comedy’ — stand up sets about my research. I believe that communication is a core skill for all scientists, and that where possible, scientists have a duty to disseminate their research to multiple audiences in order to educate, inform decision making, and inspire change — especially within fields as pressing and as pervasive as climate warming and global ecosystem change. As such, I dedicate time to pursuing different forms and media of outreach.

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This week on Real Scientists, we’ll tell you a bit about our research about how ecosystems and different plants and animals respond to global change in the Arctic and all around the world. We’ll share with you some of our scientific findings, fieldwork adventures, the joys of analysing data, our collaborative approach to science, our lives as scientists and maybe a bit about being a scientist under lockdown.

The plan is: Today – Intro to the team, Monday – The greening Arctic, Tuesday – Global biodiversity change, Wednesday – Diversity in data science, Thursday – Scientific storytelling, Friday – Fieldwork adventures and Saturday – Ecology in a changing world.

Let us know if you have any questions or topics you want us to cover this week! Looking forward to sharing our science.

Here’s hoping our social media take over is a success!

by Isla, Gergana and Elise

Weathered in

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

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

Day 41

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

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

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

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

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Polar bear foot prints on the beach around camp.

Day 42

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

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Ravens playing in the wind above the tent shelters.

Day 43

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

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

Day 44

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

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

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

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

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

Day 45

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

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

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

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

Day 46

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

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

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

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

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

Words, photos and video by Isla Myers-Smith

Our last last day on Qikiqtaruk. Maybe.

Today is the 19th August – our fifth “last day” on Qikiqtaruk. Weather rules over life in the Arctic, and especially travel. Any planning is to be taken with a generous shake of salt as sunshine quickly turns into rain, fog rolls in and strong winds blow across the island. Our scheduled departure was on the 15th August – a stormy day that made the landing of the Twin Otter plane that was to take us to Inuvik impossible. Since that first last day, we have been living in a strange mix of being in the moment and planning ahead, stuck in the limbo of Arctic unpredictability.

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Pauline Cove, where we were based during our time on Qikiqtaruk, and where we spend all of our days waiting for the plane. The calm waters quickly turned to stormy waves as darker and darker clouds rolled in. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Now, five days later, I am sitting by the fire in Community House, once again awaiting news on whether or not our plane is coming. The sunshine days on Qikiqtaruk seem to be long gone, but today the weather is the best it has been in days. Dark, gloomy and rainy with the occasional snowflake, but still calm and relatively clear. Alas, that is not the situation in Inuvik, from where our plane is departing, and where fog has once again put a pause on our departure. It seems like today our departure is the most likely it’s been so far. My bags are packed, our field gear is put away in the warehouse, the floor is drying after our supposed final mop. These days of waiting, of not knowing whether or not we will leave, have given us extra time to take in the island, to wrap up extra field tasks, get crafty and reflect on our time here.

To check out Isla’s take on our final days on Qikiqtaruk in 2019, check out her blog post about what it’s like to be weathered in here.

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As the chill in the air grew stronger and stronger, the wood stove became our gathering place. From a drone lab to a hair salon, art and craft studio to just a place to warm up and talk, this room took many roles during our summer on Qikiqtaruk. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

15th August Thursday

On our first last day, we woke up to a radio message from the rangers – “Polar bear, polar bear across the bay!”. We rushed outside in our pajamas to take a look at the polar bear in the distance. A young male, we thought, that walked up and down the hills and along the beach. As the bear approached a peregrine nest, the raptors went up in the air and angrily circled around the bear. Later on, a pair of gulls displayed the same behaviour. We watched the bear from a distance for a while and then hid away from the winds. We knew we are bound to be staying here for longer than we planned, but the exciting wildlife made up for any alterations in our plans.

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In tune with life back at camp following a slower pace, the polar bear spent most of its time huddled up between tussocks, with the occasional stroll up and down the hills that muddled up the bear’s white fur. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

16th August Friday

On our second last day, we knew that there were no available planes and thus we slept in and took our time finishing packing and tidying up. The smell of delicious cookies filled up the house and we each took to whatever activities we enjoy but often don’t find the time for during the more active part of the field season. As blank pages turned into paintings, wood took the shape of a bowhead and we signed our 2019 plaque, the day quickly progressed. Every once in a while, we would go outside to check the hills and see what the polar bear is up to. And on one of those checks, we saw a bear-looking animal but much darker than the polar bear we had been observing during the day. A large grizzly bear had come up on the horizon of the same hills where the polar bear was. The polar bear was lying among the tundra tussocks and eventually the grizzly walked away in the other direction without much action, but it was still exciting to see two different bear species at the same time.

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Every year the walls and shelves in the buildings on Qikiqtaruk gain new plaques – pieces of wood and another materials found on the island, each signed with people’s names. For the 2019 Team Shrub plaque, we combined a piece of wood we thought looked like a whale with gagoon (birch bark, the best fire starter around here!) with a macrame-style shrub. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

17th August Saturday

On our third last day, we again took in the island, paused to reflect and adjusted to life in waiting. A big storm was once again raging across the island. The days were beginning to merge. We are not quite sure exactly what happened, but we do know that we did not see a polar bear.

18th August Sunday

On our fourth last day, we woke up early and after a look outside and no news of the plane, went back to bed. Painting, reading, word games with the youth from the Elders and Youth Program and wildlife sightings occupied most of our day. Winter felt particularly close that day, as the rain and wind chilled our bodies and made us run towards the fire after each venture outside. But for those that braved the outside world, a magical sight awaited. Four bowhead whales spent hours feeding close to shore in the cove – just where we usually run into the cold water after being in the sauna. That was the closest I have ever been to bowhead whales. I saw the bow-shaped markings giving them their name, their bodies curving as they rode the waves. We were all freezing, but the experience was more than worth it. Seeing the whales so up close and for quite a while as they went back and forth across the cove was a sight that resonated with everyone on the island. Whenever I turned my head away from the relentless wind, I saw people gazing at the whales and taking in the experience of being meters away from bowhead whales on a cold gloomy day in the Arctic.

19th August Monday

On our fifth last day, we woke up the earliest we have so far. Once again we packed and cleaned but there is still no sense of urgency in the air. Fog has descended across Inuvik and the plane is on standby. Time is both standing still, as we move back and forth from the kitchen to the fire and drink tea after tea, but it is also moving fast as each day of delay pushes our next destination and our lives beyond the island further into the future. We will continue waiting and at some point, thought it might not be today, we will rush to the airstrip, we will close our bags for real and leave Qikiqtaruk. It has been a summer wonderfully rich in discovery, wildlife encounters and emotions, and I am grateful for the chance to be here. As we have learned over the years, Qikiqtaruk can be a difficult place to leave, we have after all been trying for five days. But aside from the physical departure from the island, it is also hard for the experiences gathered here to leave my mind. And I know that in the months and years to come, I will often think back to my arctic summers.

Ten hours later, I am once again by the fire. As the day unfolded, we kept hearing about the fog at Shingle Point and that was the fog that ultimately pushed our flight once again. We filled our day with painting polar bears, writing letters and chatting with the rest of us here on the island. Moments ago, snow was falling from the skies in large snowflakes and the hills have quickly turned white. Though the snow is now almost all melted, the snowfall once again reminded us that summer is over and winter is quickly approaching. Though I’ve enjoyed many snowfalls around the world, this brief but intense snowfall on the island felt special. All my arctic experiences have been in the summer, and the white hills were a glimpse into what the island would look like after we are gone. It is now time to unzip my bags, take my sleeping bag out and settle in for another night on Qikiqtaruk.

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We went to bed knowing that there are a few snowflakes falling outside, but we didn’t quite expect to wake up to an island fully covered in white. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

20th August Tuesday

On our sixth last day on Qikiqtaruk, the snow returned early in the morning. The hills were completely blanketed by snow. The whole island shined brightly, the sun beams reflecting off the white surface. I went around Pauline Cove for a brief walk, but there was no haste in my steps. “We’re not going anywhere today.”, I had heard earlier. So having taken in the winter scenes, I went back to sleep. Three hours later, I emerged from my sleeping bag to make a cup of tea. Through the kitchen window, I saw someone pushing a wheel barrow full of boxes towards the airstrip. Could there be a plane coming after all? Stepping outside, the surrounding soundscape reminded me of spring. The sun was as blazing as it’s ever been this week and the sound of dripping water surrounded me. The snow was quickly disappearing and the familiar green tones of the tundra were coming back.

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A scene of winter wonder emerged as more and more snow fell to the ground, turning everything white as far as the eye could see. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

“The plane is leaving Inuvik!”, someone yelled from afar. It seemed unreal. It was day six of our prolonged departure from Qikiqtaruk and we were used to the plane not coming. And now it was on the way. The haste returned to our steps as we put away the cups from the tea we didn’t make and completed our final packing. With over five days of leaving preparations under our belt, we knew exactly what we need to do and very soon we were ready. A Twin Otter plane circled over the airstrip. And it landed. The first plane was for the people from the Elders and Youth program. It would fly back to Inuvik, refuel and then come back to pick us up on its second trip to Qikiqtaruk.

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One last look at Qikiqtaruk for 2019 as the Twin Otter took to the air. All of the rangers waved goodbye and in just over an hour, we were in Inuvik. Photo by Gergana Daskalova

It was a beautiful and emotional final day on Qikiqtaruk. A day that goes to show how quickly things can change in the Arctic. The afternoon was so different from the morning. We bid goodbye to the rangers, the people we met over our time on the island, and to Qikiqtaruk. As we boarded the Twin Otter and Qikiqtaruk’s outline grew smaller and smaller in the distance, I knew that wherever I go next, I will always remember my Arctic summer.

Words, photos and video by Gergana Daskalova

The Arctic at a second glance

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

Beyond the first glance

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

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

A hidden Arctic

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

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

An unexpected diversity

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

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

An unexpected passion for plants

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

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

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

A botanist’s toolkit

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

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

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

A tundra full of surprises

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

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

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

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

A time for reflection

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

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

Words by Gergana Daskalova

An island beyond time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking out towards Colinson Head. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

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

Sunset reflections on Pauline Cove. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

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

Semipalmated Plover and chick. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

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

Words by Isla and photos by Gergana

Blowing in the wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, photos by Gergana Daskalova

Why Arctic?

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

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

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

Why the Arctic?

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

Because life happens fast here. And it has to.

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

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

More answers to Why Arctic to come!

Words and photos by Jeff Kerby

What does it mean to be an explorer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words by Isla Myers-Smith