Team shrub – together yet apart

It’s been about a week since Team Shrub has split up into two teams: the Kluane Crew and the Arctic Crew. The former has stayed at Kluane, while the latter is now in Inuvik, awaiting their departure to Qikiqtaruk island on the Yukon Arctic Coast. In this blog post, you can read about our adventures since we parted ways. 

The Adventures of the Kluane Crew

by Erica, Jiri, Calum, Diana and Joe

Since we parted ways with the other half of Team Shrub, we’ve been having a blast. We have reached new heights in the icefields, graduated our degrees on the shores of Kluane Lake, flown our drones over the rapidly melting snow and discovered new-to-us tundra plant species. Read about our goings on in Kluane in the first half of this blog post.

Flight to the Icefields

Living close to the Silver City Airstrip seemed too good to be true. When we found out there was the possibility of flying over the St. Elias Icefields with Icefield Discovery, we jumped at the opportunity – literally! Having never been on a prop plane, we were nervous but also incredibly excited. Meeting the amazing pilots Raphael and Kensuke, and having the safety brief made us feel a lot better.

The take off was incredibly smooth, more than many commercial flights! The views from the air were incredible. First, we flew over Kluane Lake, then we passed the glaciers over the majestic mountains of the Kluane National Park. Throughout the flight, our pilots told us all about the landscape, pointing out landmarks and scouting for sheep on the mountain slopes. The landing was bumpy – as one would expect when landing on a glacier – but very fun!

Once on the top of the icefields, excitement levels skyrocketed! It was all so incredibly bright. All we could see was snow, extending over the horizon to the mountains. It was an unexpectedly warm and comfortable temperature. Touching the snow was such an incredible feeling – crystalline ice! We ran, jumped, and frolicked in the frozen landscape. It felt like being on top of the world!

Being in the icefields made us want to explore the mountains around us further and made us feel incredibly grateful to be living in such a stunning place all summer. Once back at the field station, the experience almost felt unreal – did we really fly to the largest non-polar ice field in the world? It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime moment that the Kluane Crew will never forget!

Flying drones on the KLUANE Plateau

The prize for the project that requires the heaviest equipment goes to… Calum and his drone surveys! Yes, going up to the Kluane Plateau with drones has been quite challenging! On a typical day we start walking by Kluane Lake, continue through the boreal forest, pass treeline, then shrubline, and suddenly we are in the tundra! The Kluane Plateau – or The Plateau as we like to call it – is where most of our current data collection takes place. Calum and Joe are our drone experts here at Kluane, and we can definitely say that they are doing a great job! Though one question remains, will we ever get used to hiking 1000 m up the very steep trail?

Pre-plateau poses by members of the Kluane Crew. (photo credit: Calum Hoad and Jiri Subrt for the photo of Calum)

Graduating by Kluane Lake

The Team Shrub field assistants Jiri and Erica have recently completed their BSc degrees in Ecological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Unfortunately, being in the field for the summer meant that they could not attend their official graduation ceremony in Scotland. The amazing Kluane Team did not want them to miss out on such a milestone! After luring Jiri and Erica on a “team walk to the lake”, Calum, Joe, and Diana surprised the two field assistants with a bottle of champagne hidden in a pond close to the Lake.

The surprises didn’t end there! Our “crafty stitcher”, Diana, put together some graduation gowns made of black mesh and Joe wrote pretend diplomas tied up in flagging tape. Fieldwork equipment really comes to loads of uses! Luckily, Jiri and Erica never leave the station without their sun caps, which came in handy for the classic graduation hat toss! After a few glasses of champagne with a lovely view over the lake at sunset, the graduation ceremony came to an end, with some very happy field assistants.

Luckily, Jiri and Erica never leave the station without their sun caps, which came in handy for the classic graduation hat toss! After a few glasses of champagne with a lovely view over the lake at sunset, the graduation ceremony came to an end, with some very happy field assistants!

Plant hunting! 

One of our goals for this summer was to get to know the diversity of plants around Kluane and to be able to confidently identify them in the field. After all, plant ID is an essential fieldwork skill! Taking pictures of plants in the field and identifying them back at the station has become the new fun activity within our team. That’s field life! Until now, we have identified more than 50 species! Our field assistant, Jiri, has created a beautifully detailed collection of plant pictures, along with their scientific names and main characteristics. We cannot wait to use this resource when trying to identify plants in the field! With more than six weeks left in the field… will we surpass one hundred plant species?

Quick tundra ecology quiz: Can you identify these majestic tundra plants? (photo credit: Jiri Subrt)

So that sums up the adventures of the past week or so. What other adventures does Kluane have in store for us this summer? Only time will tell.

The Adventures of the Arctic Crew

By Clara, Madi, Elise, Zabrina and Isla

The Arctic Crew of Team Shrub departed the Kluane Region and travelled via Whitehorse across the Arctic Circle to our new temporary home of Inuvik. We thought we would be here for just a few days, but a week later, we are still in town and waiting to catch our much awaited charter flight to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island on the Arctic Coast of the Yukon. Read about our adventures as we pack and do logistics in the searing heat of summer in the land of the midnight sun during a “heat dome”.

The Heat Dome – the hottest place in Canada at 32C

“Travel to the Arctic!”, they said. “It’ll be cold!”, they said. We’re not so sure…. As soon as we stepped off the plane as it landed at Inuvik airport, we were met with a wall of tropical humid air, and we had to check to make sure we hadn’t accidentally boarded a plane to Mexico instead of the Canadian Arctic.

Sure enough, we arrived in Inuvik during a heat wave. More precisely, a heat ‘dome’. This is a meteorological feature that occurs when high pressure is trapped over a region by the jet stream, meaning the areas below experience baking hot conditions for days on end. This northern heatwave has apparently been breaking records in the Yukon and Northwest Territories this week, reaching a high of 32°C on the 7th of July.

Not fantastic news for the Arctic crew who packed our thermal long johns and puffer down jackets in preparation for island life! To cope, we’ve been visiting ice cream shops and taking luxuriant swims in the local ‘airport lake’. 

Logistics in Inuvik

“Where is the sharpie?”, “Has anyone got the duct tape?”, “Did we take a photo of that box before we fastened the cable ties?”. This has been the soundscape of our work in the Aurora Research Institute loading dock this week as the Arctic team has been busy packing and re-packing cargo ready to fly out to the island later in the week. We’ve all been getting buff hoisting boxes around between the storage cage and the weighing scales – but don’t worry, we’ve been treating ourselves with much needed ice cream floats and BBQ food!

We’ve also been busy zipping between the handful of shops in Inuvik buying essential groceries, important hardware, and the most precious and rare cargo of all, lactose-free milk (Madi) and gluten-free bread (Elise). This has been an action-packed week defined by sweltering temperatures and multiple spreadsheet tabs, but we’ll appreciate all our hard work when we get to the island with all of our scientific gear, food, and luggage in tow – that is if we don’t forget anything!

Music jams and Research convos in Inuvik

One of the great things about visiting the Aurora Research Station is meeting other researchers from different institutes around the world: University of Alberta, University of Victoria and the Alfred Wegener Institute, amongst others. The heatwave has been absolutely perfect for BBQs out in front of the row houses; between roasted halloumi and hot dogs, we’ve been able to fill up and chat with fellow researchers about the science behind their research. Our shared housing situation has also allowed us to meet our wonderful roommate from whom we’ve learned about greenhouses and food security up in the North.

After dinner, it never took too long for the guitar, fiddle and ukulele to be taken out of their cases and tuned for a little jam session between the musical members of each team. With guitar, viola, mandolin and ukulele, we have enough instruments to form a band! But do we have the required musical talents? Maybe not, but have a listen to the music jam in Inuvik in the following audio clip. We’ll practice on the island!

A clip of a row house music jam with Trevor from UVic and Isla in Inuvik.

Off to Qikiqtaruk

Now, by the end of the week, we are approaching the point of no return. Our charter flight was scheduled for Sunday at 10am. But Sunday has come and gone and now so has Monday too. When will we fly? Time feels in standstill as we wait each day for the call to rush to the airport with the last of our bags and all of our frozen food.

Once we board that Twin Otter, we’ll leave the connectivity of Inuvik and head off to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. The ice is breaking up with creaking and cracking along the Arctic Coast of the Yukon and the plants are whistling in the wind and calling us over. Listen closely to see if you can hear from afar! We’re crossing our fingers for good weather and hoping the fog stays at bay, allowing us a safe flight over with a great view.

Monday update…the fog has not stayed at bay. We are still here in Inuvik, but for how much longer??? Only time and the pilots will tell. Fortunately there is still one ice cream shop to check out (soft serve!), but the temperature is plummeting making ice cream less appealing for some perhaps, but not for us!

Two crews 1000 kms apart. Even though our adventures may take us in different directions, Team Shrub is still together!

Words and photos by Team Shrub

Team Shrub’s 2022 journey to the Yukon

Where does a journey begin? We haven’t had a full field season for three years. Due to a little-known virus called COVID-19 we’ve had to wait until 2022. In a sense, the journey that takes us here to this field season began many years ago. But for some, the journey only started only a few short months ago when they applied to join the team. However you look at it, this year in 2022 we are a new team together on a new adventure. 

And where are we going on this adventure? Team Shrub is spending the summer across the Yukon Territory from the Kluane Region in the south, to Tombstone in the Central Yukon up to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island on the Yukon North Slope. For some of us this adventure takes place in our own backyards, others have never been as far as now from their hometown. In this blog post, we’ll introduce you to the 2022 Team Shrub Field Crew and the journey that we have taken to get here – to Kluane Lake in the Yukon.

We’re a team of ten intrepid researchers hailing from the University of Edinburgh, Université de Sherbrooke and Yukon University. What brings us to the Yukon this summer is a love of plants, a fascination with the way the world works and a lack of fear of biting insects and super cold water. Together, we’re here to understand how plants respond when the climate warms, but we’re exploring that topic from all angles this summer using hyperspectral sensors, drones, time-lapse cameras, clippers and measuring tapes.

We’re trying to piece together a complex puzzle: from how individual plants respond as the climate warms, through to how plant and animal species interact with each other, up to how we can spot changing tundra landscapes from space. Across the summer, in these blog posts we’ll try to paint a picture of the systems we are studying and the things that we are finding as we battle the bugs, car troubles and belated shipments to conduct our research.

Each field season is its own journey and this field season has started with some unexpected hiccups. When we first arrived in Whitehorse and were running around town our vehicle started making a subtle beeping noise. “What is that?”, we asked ourselves, “maybe the check oil indicator”, a little while later Joe pulled me aside and said: “Isla, there is a screw poking out of our tire”. Now that we knew what the problem was – a rapidly flattening tire – we needed to figure out how to solve the problem.

After stops and calls to most of the tire stores in town we found by word of mouth ‘The Tire Guy’ who sorted us out with a fix of the flat, but also discovered that we had another problem tire. So then it was back to Canadian tire to purchase two new tires, an extra night in Whitehorse for me and a near full tire switch to get new tires on to replace the damaged ones. The vehicle still needs some other sorting out in the long-term, but for now we are back on the road for the rest of our field journey. And what a journey it should be with a crew of 10 people working at field sites across the Yukon on questions as broad as how are tundra growing seasons shifting with climate change, to what controls the growth of boreal forest shrubs or tundra shrubs growing in a boreal forest environment, to how to the traits and functions of plants vary across elevational and latitudinal gradients, through to how we can observe tundra biodiversity and greening from space.

If you ask my friends, I haven’t stopped talking about Canada since I returned to Scotland from an exchange to the University of Calgary in 2015. I’ve been stoked to get back to Canada ever since and I can’t think of a better way to do it than a field season in the mountains surrounding Kluane Lake in the Yukon! Before I could hop on a plane (or three) and make it to the field – I had to send the Team’s scientific kit ahead of me, which turned out to be more of a challenge than I was expecting.

It turns out DHL is an acronym for ‘Doesn’t Handle Lithium’ and the shipment boomerang-ed back to me with ‘too many batteries’ written on all the boxes. This began a frantic lithium treasure hunt to remove the elusive and sometimes very tiny batteries that seemed to be the problem and re-ship everything before I departed Scotland. Eventually, the shipment departed – fingers crossed we see it soon! After months of writing applications for Canadian drone permits, applying for equipment loans, and dealing an array of other miscellaneous team logistics, I’m delighted I’ve finally made it to Kluane, even if all of our shipment hasn’t yet due to unknown delays. I’m feeling very at home in the mountains (even with an overly warm welcome from the mosquitoes) and can’t wait to immerse myself in Yukon research, hiking, and cold water! And I can’t wait to start flying drones over melting snow patches to better understand tundra greening seen from space.

After finishing an ecology degree in Edinburgh a few months ago, I was super excited about this scientific expedition. I have always loved spending time outside but never spent more than two months in the field. This summer I am working as field assistant for Team Shrub, which will be my first big summer field season ever! After the initial excitement of knowing that the field season was happening, I started feeling slightly nervous.

Logistics, new equipment, not knowing what to expect, and mostly, doubting my ability to do the job. Once we arrived to Vancouver, we were welcomed by beach weather and ice-cream which alleviated any leftover stress – there’s only excitement left! Spending months researching tundra plant vegetation change for my undergraduate dissertation was a great experience, but I am thrilled to finally see the ecosystem I have only read about until now! As field assistants, we are here to help with any project from Team Shrub or our collaborators. With the amount of projects to work on, we will certainly not get bored! I am also hoping to find inspiration for a Master’s project. And the best tip for fieldwork? Don’t have any expectations, go with the flow! 

My taxi driver at Vancouver airport told me that I’d have a hard time doing research because there are no plants in the Arctic. This summer, I am on a mission to prove him wrong.

This should have been the third full summer field season of my PhD – but it turns out to be the first! Out of the sleepy lull of lockdowns and travel cancellations, this summer’s field adventures have been a blast to help to organise (over the past three years)!

From trialing my field methods for the NERC-funded TundraTime Project including the above-and-below ground protocol in the snowy Cairngorms National Park, to obtaining my drone pilot licences, to organising international shipments for my collaborators, and much more, I’ve certainly been kept busy! This spring, I completed an internship with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Trondheim, and from there I hopped onto a plane to the UK for a fleeting visit and to grab my thermal long-johns and bug nets. Then I flew straight to the west coast of Canada for a few weeks in Kluane which will be followed by a month up on Qikiqtaruk. I can’t wait to learn more about these wonderful places and the phenology of those tundra plants and of course to embrace my old friends mosquitoes with open arms!

Having spent multiple seasons in the Colorado Rockies, I am not a stranger to field work – but every season is different! I arrived in the Yukon late one evening in a blaze of boarding passes, oversized bags, and an 18-hour Shakira-filled playlist. I may have been the last to arrive but as lead food coordinator, my joining the team was long awaited. Organising nine weeks-worth of food across the Yukon was a challenge, but turns out if you buy enough Country Time, Ritz crackers, and Oreos, you can keep a team of 10 pretty happy.

Conversely, if you make 10 pounds of tortellini in an evening, people may never let you live it down. Despite being North American, I now live in Edinburgh and have spent very little time in Canada, but I’m delighted to finally spend some time further north amongst the spectacular scenery of Kluane and the wider Yukon. I’ve taken some measurements, made millions of to-do lists, and swatted some mosquitoes, so I feel like I’m settling into the fieldwork just fine. I’ll be deep in the forests bushwhacking to get to Boreal shrubs in no time. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll be closer to understanding how they respond to variations in climate.

It feels great to be back in Yukon! After spending last summer here in Kluane, the place feels very familiar! There was a bit of stress leading up to our departure, but all things considered, Clara and I had a pretty smooth journey from Sherbrooke to Whitehorse, where we met up with the rest of the team. After almost two years of chatting on Zoom, it is a relief to finally meet the Edinburgh-based Team Shrub in person. Some are taller (Joe) than expected and some are smaller (Erica), but all are 10/10.

I’m very excited to show the team around the Kluane plateau, have a team dip in the lake and explore this wonderful region together! We’ve had a lot of fun so far and I’m excited to head up north soon for my postponed first Arctic field season as a part of the Canadian Airborne Biodiversity Observatory project. With hyperspectral sensors and cameras, scanners and balances were going to test how we can use information beyond what we can see with the eye to capture the biodiversity of tundra ecosystems and the properties of tundra plants. But first, we needed to collect the first of the common garden data of the season.

My journey to the Yukon started while watching a lecture on Arctic greening and the impacts on herbivores by Isla, something clicked. I got curious and investigated vegetation change in the Porcupine caribou habitat as my dissertation topic. I read papers about climate change, shrub encroachment, caribou diets, hoping that one day I’d get the chance to see a real caribou! Luckily, a job opportunity from Team Shrub popped up: a call for field assistants for the upcoming field season in the Yukon.

I couldn’t miss the opportunity! Once I got my application sent in, I started slightly panicking. Would I be up for the task? Self-doubt became even more real when I did get the job! A huge amount of logistical prep started piling up. Applying for funding, buying equipment, writing a project proposal to collect my own data. The next few months were a blur. Suddenly there I was on my very first long-haul flight. Excitement levels were over the roof – 11/10. After a few wobbles on the way, we finally made it to Kluane Lake. I had never seen such huge mountains and I can’t wait to experience more of this incredible place – despite having to karate my way out of mosquito clouds!

Having just finished the first year of my undergrad at Université de Sherbrooke, I am the baby of this year’s Team Shrub! I’ve travelled a ton(ne) around the southern Canadian provinces, but I had been looking for an excuse to explore the Great North within the Great White North. I was astounded when the opportunity to join Team Shrub fell within my reach after only two semesters studying ecology. I can’t wait to learn tundra ecology in the field with the team!

Madi, a few too many oversized bags and I were lucky to experience smooth sailing from Sherbrooke all the way to Whitehorse. Now, I am thrilled to be helping out on some amazing projects for this summer, here in the breath-taking mountainous landscape of Kluane and then on Qikiqtaruk later this summer. I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting first field season! Here to more bonfires on the beach.

The mountains of North Western Canada have long been a draw and the opportunity to spend a PhD summer working there was an opportunity far too good to pass up. I dove into the organisation and spent a spring swimming in permits, logistics and admin for far flung lands. After all of this anticipation and excitement, we’ve made it to the Yukon and are all settled in, accompanied by our adorable trio of resident ground squirrels – Chipchop, Jean Jacques and Roger.

A couple of days ago, we got the chance to hike up to the alpine on the Kluane Plateau and I got to see the tundra ecosystems that I’ll be studying for the very first time. The mountains of the Kluane region are just as if not more majestic than I was imagining. Time to get measuring, drone flying and climbing some hills to figure out how the diversity of tundra ecosystems and the functions that plants provide vary up mountains and across the Yukon.

My journey officially started as a kid growing up in the Yukon with close connections to the Kluane area. From my obsession with rocks and exposure to plants and animals from my elders, I was hooked with being out on the land and this continues to this day. This summer, I have just completed my BSc in Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences with the University of Alberta and Yukon University. My journey with Team Shrub started when an email fell into my inbox.

As a teenager, I dreamed to become a photographer for Nat Geo. This summer, I have the amazing opportunity supported by the National Geographic Society STEM field assistant program and see my home in a new capacity as a researcher! Leading up to the field season, my home served as port of arrival for many Team Shrub packages. This caused much confusion within my family: who was this mysterious Dr. Isla Myers-Smith? My photos about the state of snowmelt on the Kluane plateau allowed the team to get a general idea of what to expect. My knowledge of the Kluane region has made me a bit of a tour guide to this year’s eclectic group. I am very excited to join the Arctic crew to explore new horizons on Qikiqtaruk island this summer.

This is only the beginning of an exciting journey for Team Shrub. We hope it will be a journey of discovery, inspiration and scientific advancement. Most of us are very much out of our comfort zone, but having an amazing team helps to create the feeling of being at home in the field. There will be challenges ahead, but we are ready to tackle them!

Words and photos by Team Shrub

Willow – a sequel

In a time long ago (or only a few years ago, depending on how you look at it) in land far, far away (or close by depending on where you are reading this post from) tundra willows have been eking out an existence on the warmest edge of their environmental niche. Willows from the North and willows from the South, from high up in the mountains or out on the Arctic coast, are growing together in a common and warmer environment. But over the past eight long years, what has this adventurous yet labourious experiment taught us about the shrubification taking over tundra as the climate warms? Read on to find out.

In 2018, we wrote up a blog post providing some interim results about our tundra willow common garden experiment and we even made a movie trailer!

The trailer from our 2018 blog post about our common garden experiment entitled Willow. editing credit: Gergana Daskalova

But what is going on with the willows now? What have we learned from our eight-year long experiment. We will be working on writing up these results over the coming year, but we thought we could give you all a sneak preview in this blog post in the form of a mini scientific paper.

Title

Tundra shrubs take over when moved down mountains,

but not AS much when Moved south

or

Tundra shrubs grow rapidly in warmer conditions,

but local alpine willows outpace northern Arctic willows

Abstract

Tundra shrubs can grow rapidly in warmer environments reaching heights as high as over a metre in less than eight years of growth. However, Arctic tundra willows don’t grow as fast as local alpine willows when grown in a warmer environment in the boreal forest. This suggests that tundra shrubs genetically vary across latitudes in the timing of their growth, the way that they grow and the size to which they grow. And that we should expect rapid, but not uniform rates of shrub expansion across the tundra biome with warming.

The common garden!

Introduction

A major unknown in tundra ecology is whether shrubs will rapidly respond to changing climate conditions or whether plants are genetically adapted to their current environment, thus limiting future vegetation change. We designed a tundra willow common garden experiment to investigate the variation in tundra shrub growth across the Yukon Territory.

Our Research Question:

How does growth vary in southern alpine versus northern Arctic willows when grown in a common and warmer environment?

Methods

We collected willows from the alpine tundra of the Kluane Region (61°N) to the arctic tundra of the Yukon North Slope (70°N) and planted them in a warmer boreal forest environment.

The tundra ecosystems have average summer temperatures of around 10°C and growing seasons of around 60 days whereas the boreal forest site has temperatures of around 15°C and a growing season of closer to 80 days. We established the garden in 2013 and planted willows each year until 2018.

The garden is planted with three species: Salix pulchra (diamond-shaped willow) and Salix richardsonii (Richardson’s willow) and Salix arctica (Arctic willow) from the Kluane Region and Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.

The willows were planted across the garden in different beds to account for variation in the microtopography and soil conditions within the garden.

The common garden experiment from the air. photo credit: Iain Myers-Smith

Results

Here are the headline findings including the latest data from the 2021 field season:

  • Tall willows from the alpine and same latitude grew faster and taller than willows from 1000 km to the north in the Arctic. The alpine plants from the two tall willow species were 2 to 6 times taller and twice to three times as fast as the Arctic plants reaching average heights of 1 m and growing at rates of on average 5 cm and up to 20 cm per year in eight years since planting.
Figure 1. Difference in willow growth between species for the two different willow source populations the Kluane alpine (green) and Qikiqtaruk Arctic tundra (blue) for all willows that remain alive in the experiment with age (top plots) and in 2021 (bottom plots).
  • The tall willows from the Arctic have smaller and lighter leaves with a greater specific leaf area (the ratio of area to mass) relative to the alpine willows. The leaves from the Arctic plants are four times smaller and lighter than the alpine willows.
Figure 2. Difference in willow traits including height and leaf traits between species for the two different willow source populations the Kluane alpine (green) and Qikiqtaruk Arctic tundra (blue) in the common garden (bright colours) when compared to data from the source locations (faded colours). Common garden leaf trait data are from 2017 and canopy heights are from 2021, source location data are from 2013 – 2017.
  • The dwarf willow species Salix arctica from the alpine and Arctic have grown equally well with no difference in canopy height, plant size or growth rates. The size of the plants and their leaves is similar between the Arctic and alpine plants after six years since planting.
Measuring the height of Salix arctica (arctic willow). photo credit: Gergana Daskalova
  • Arctic willows don’t grow for as long as alpine willows each summer. The leaves tall Arctic willows start to turn yellow in mid-July each year, three weeks earlier than the alpine willows.
An Arctic willow in the common garden experiment turning yellow in mid July with green alpine willows behind it.

So what does this all mean and why does it matter? How can the findings from this experiment help us understand tundra shrubification with climate change?

Discussion

Through this experiment, we now know that rates of shrub growth can be very rapid in a warmer boreal forest environment. Growth rates in the experiment were more rapid than we currently see in willows growing in warming tundra locations with shrub heights reaching over a metre in only eight years – that is more than 10 cm of vertical growth per year! That is pretty rapid when compared to the couple of centimetres of growth seen in naturally growing Arctic and alpine tundra willows.

We also found that willows from the north that are moved south are genetically adapted to the midnight sun and different light conditions up north. In Kluane, the willows from the Arctic begin to change colour in the middle of the summer and the willows are not able to grow for as long. Those northern willows grew more slowly and reached smaller plant sizes across the experiment in the two tall willow species that we studied, but surprisingly not in the third dwarf willow species Salix arctica.

Salix arctica is one of the most widely distributed tundra willows and grows as far north as the top of Ellesmere Island and Greenland at over 80°N. For this species, growth rates were similar between the Arctic and alpine plants suggesting that some willow species might be better able to take advantage of changing environmental and light conditions even when moved long distances.

Salix arctica on Ellesmere Island. photo credit: Anne Bjorkman

Conclusion

The take-home message is that tundra shrubs can grow very rapidly in a warmer environment, and thus we should expect further rapid shrub expansion with climate warming. But, we shouldn’t necessarily expect different shrub species to respond in the same ways north to south across the tundra biome. Shrubs that are adapted to their local conditions and are also able to take advantage of the warming climate will likely respond most rapidly. And there could be some surprises in store with future shrubification where the species that we least expect, like the cold-loving dwarf willow Salix arctica, could potentially thrive the best under changing climate conditions.

Meticulous measurement collection in the common garden experiment. video credit: Noah Bell

Acknowledgement

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the countless hours it has taken to set up and maintain this experiment over the past eight years. It has been and continues to be a labour of love! Garden party to celebrate anyone?

By Isla with 2021 common garden data collected by Madelaine and Beth

Written for the 2021 Yukon University Northern Studies Field Methods Course

A common garden tea party!

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.

Rainbow
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