Enter the world of willows. Journey to the south-west corner of the Yukon, to a land of glorious landscapes, shrubs and magic, where willows from the south and north live side by side… to a place that never existed (prior to 2014), to a time that is now (with a small blog posting delay). It is a world where a courageous team plants willows, living out an adventure that tests how shrubs grow in a warmer climate.
A journey across altitudes and latitudes – from the shores of Kluane Lake up to the plateau above it and Pika Camp; from Qikiqtaruk to Inuvik to Whitehorse to Kluane again. The journeys have been long, but they’ve been fruitful. What’s left behind is a garden full of willows with different origins. Now, they share a common new home, but their journey is far from over.
A twin otter taking off – passengers, equipment and willows on board!
From Qikiqtaruk southwards to Kluane – the journey of some of our willows!
A Richardson’s Willow growing in the common garden
The common garden!
A time when a willow (or over 100) could tip the balance between environmental and genetic constraints
How do willows respond to increases in temperature? If a willow from the north is propagated in the south and starts experiencing the warmer climate there, it is freed of the environmental constraints of the harsher northern climate. But if it’s genes that determine how much a willow grows, the change in climate might have little effect. So which way does the balance tip? And like in most good movies, is there a twist that nobody saw coming? Stay tuned for more as we piece together the common garden discoveries we’ve made so far.
Richardson’s willow in the floodplain on Qikiqtaruk.
Our cuttings – labelled up and ready to be planted.
Counting rings to determine age and preparing the cuttings.
Rooting hormone to help our willows settle in their new home.
And into the hole it goes – the start of new life in Kluane.
Drop by drop, water sinks into the dry soil in Kluane.
A time for unlikely heroes
The heroes of this story are many, and it’s their combined work that has made the common garden what it is today. From many of Earth’s corners, people have come to the common garden and worked away – preparing the beds, moving soil and sand, planting, weeding, measuring, recording observations, the list goes on and on!
Heading out into the field in Pika Camp
Santeri with caribou antlers
El and John
Ground control points
Haydn lost in a huge Salix richardsonii shrub (worry not, we faked the photo, that shrub is only 120cm tall – which is still gigantic for Herschel Island!)
A time when courage could be found where you least expect it
Along the shore of Kluane Lake as we carry buckets and buckets of water under the blistering sun. In the floodplain on Qikiqtaruk as we collect willow cuttings drenched by the rain. Up in the mountains where each step takes us potentially one step closer to finding an arctic willow specimen from which we can take a cutting to propagate in the garden. Along the path from Outpost Camp to the garden as we walk there wondering what the garden will look like. But really, when one most needs courage is when downloading data off HOBO temperature data loggers. Just when you’ve figured one data logger out, you move onto the next to find that it’s a slightly different model, needing different tools to open it up, different batteries and a different type of cable. After the great HOBO trials of 2017, this year we were ready with all the tools, batteries, cables and courage we imagined we could possibly need. There were trials, moments when the goal seemed unreachable, but just in the nick of time, on our last day in Kluane, we managed to install the right software for the special HOBO cable and we got the data! Courageous!
Walking to the common garden ready for some willow action!
Bringing water from the lake to the garden.
A HOBO data logger success!
High up in the mountains – the origin of some of our willows.
Not a time when good humans risked their lives
All risk assessment forms were filled on time, with all safety protocols carried out and of course, the best heroes are the ones with expedition-level first aid training.
If a willow dies not all hope for the future is lost
Sadness ensues when a willow succumbs to drought, heat, disease or fails to establish in its new home. Soothing the pain are all the other willows that continue holding onto life in the common garden. And when it comes to an experiment, there is value in death as well. As Haydn pointed out earlier in the summer after hearing about the drought in Kluane, regardless of the balance between life and death in the garden, there are still many great discoveries ahead.
A time of great adventure
Will the 2018 willows we brought from Qikiqtaruk and high up on the Kluane Plateau make it in the common garden? Now, a mere stick hints to all the potential shrubbiness of the new willows, but what is now a stick, can be a thriving shrub next year. Will that indeed be the case? How will our willows fare with the approaching winter? Only time can tell. All the best stories leave you hanging for at least 10 months, right?
From Team Shrub and the shrubs of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, Kluane Plateau and Pika Valley, comes the Common Garden. Stay tuned for scientific discoveries!
Text by Gergana Video footage: Noah Bell, Isla Myers-Smith & Gergana Daskalova Video editting: Gergana Daskalova
For the past several summers, I have set the following message on my Skype account: “Sigh. I’m back from the Arctic and back to the real world”. But this summer, I switched things up. The message now reads: “I’m off to the Arctic and off to the real world. Yay!” The Arctic is very much the real world, more real than the rest of my life perhaps, and here’s why.
In the Arctic, life focuses around the daily routine – meals, fieldwork, what to pack in your bag – warm clothes, snacks, drone equipment, etc. And what sets that daily routine is the weather, wildlife and the Earth’s elements in all forms. What does it matter when the work day starts if it is windy and raining and you can’t do the work you need to do. But equally if the sunshine and light winds come at any time, morning, noon and night, you need to be ready to get out there! For the last four days, the weather has been holding us back.
Update Monday 8:20 AM, 13th August 2018: Today, we are here on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island – on the day we were meant to fly out of the island and back to that supposed “real world”. Low clouds have been whipping past the island and there has been some drizzle. Not the ideal conditions for a plane flight. Our bags are packed and we are mostly ready to go, but we are on hold waiting for the weather and for the next available slot for the charter plane to pick us up, supposedly tomorrow at 5pm.
We had an epic day of data collection out at Slump D to get high resolution 3D models of the thawing slump with an added bonus of thermal data collected with a FLIR Duo R sensor – images of the temperature of the surface to help us understand how slumps thaw. That took us a good six hours of flying with two drone teams and two drone platforms – a Phantom 4 Advanced multicopter and an FX-61 Delta fixedwing. Surprisingly, the weather did not deteriorate that day as it often does when you head out in the boat to go to the farther away sites and we managed to get all the data collected.
A thermal image of Slump D.
Taking a drone selfie to check that the camera is working.
Carrying the Thermal camera.
Here are some of those very data. On the top left you can see the same part of Slump D in mid July and early August. The slump head wall has thawed a bit and the snow patches are smaller. Below you can see this same bit of slump in the four spectral bands of the Parrot Sequoia sensor – red, green, red edge and infrared. Different features of the tundra landscape are visible across these spectral bands – this is the information that we will extract to understand how rapidly these systems are thawing.
The cravas at Slump D in July with snow patches.
The cravas at Slump D in August with smaller snow patches.
Green spectral band of multispectral imagery.
Red spectral band of multispectral imagery.
Red edge spectral band of multispectral imagery.
Near infrared spectral band of multispectral imagery.
The last few days of the field season were not as epic. Team “Resting Drone” as we now call ourselves attempted to collect the last of our multispectral drone data. We hiked out to one of our focal research sites Collinson Head (Nuvuruaq) with all of our drone equipment – three drones and very heavy bags full of batteries and warm clothes. And then we spent all day out on the tundra waiting – on the first day for the winds to die down, and on the second day in the still calm winds for the fog to blow away.
Sadly, the weather did not cooperate and no drone data were collected. With periodic storms coming in the month of August, that was our last window for drone flying and without the stars aligning, the end of season multispectral data could not be collected. Sigh!!! At least there were some multispec data from the 3rd of August, which wasn’t that long ago. Sometimes it is hard to come to terms with the elements dictating which data get collected and when. All I wanted was one more day of late season drone data out at Collinson Head, our long-term monitoring site where we track the seasonal changes in the vegetation, but it was not to be.
Update Tuesday 8:20 AM, 14th August 2018: Every morning we call in to provide a weather check for the pilots at Aklak Airlines. As I said in my sat phone call, now it is very windy with up to 50+ km/hr gusts of winds from the west to northwest. The ceiling height is variable with some low cloud around at 400 ft. Again, not ideal for the plane. Maybe the twin otter will be able to get us this evening?
It isn’t too windy to go collect markers though, so we head out across the tundra to deconstruct the remaining drone plots that we optimistically left in place in case we could fly the drones. It is beautiful out there with the tundra just starting to turn from green to golden brown. It is a late year for plant phenology – the timing of the greening, flowering and yellowing of the plants. In 2018, the plants greened up about two to three weeks later than in recent years, back to the timing of the growing season from the late 90s and early 2000s. This year has been a cold year across the Canadian Arctic. Having that variation in when the plants are growing from year to year will help us understand and quantify how plants might respond as the Arctic continues to warm.
Can you spot the differences in these photos from the same places on the same date, the 25th of July, in 2017 versus 2018?
25 July 2017 – Komakuk vegetation type
25 July 2018 – Komakuk vegetation type
25 July 2017 – Herschel vegetation type
25 July 2018 – Herschel vegetation type
The differences might appear subtle, but in 2018, there are still lots of flowers visible at both sites and there is maybe less of a brown hue to the tundra leaves in 2018 relative to 2017.
Update Tuesday 4:00 PM, 14th August 2018: The weather has improved! But unfortunately, the pilots are stuck in Cambridge Bay in the Central Arctic. No flight for us today. Maybe first thing tomorrow. Time for a very long call on the sat phone to reschedule our flights, but worry not Air North, Yukon’s Airline is the best airline ever! We get our ticket changes all sorted.
The other thing that makes the Arctic just as real as the rest of our lives are the people. When you are on a remote Arctic island, your family and friends feel very far away, but equally you have a new community right there with you – the people on the island. Local people, “research neighbours”, park rangers, government workers, tourists – all the islanders join together to become a part of the overall experience that is far more interactive than many of the relationships we form in our modern lives. These are the people you eat with, chat with, share a wildlife sighting with, see every day and who share in the same daily routine set by nature’s elements.
The wind has died down, we can fly drones again – but we only have one evening left and the drone gear is all packed. So, we go for the final coastal erosion flight that we were also hoping to collect as those data can be collected in the evening and don’t involve too much unpacking. The sun comes out and low angle golden light bathes Simpson Point (Kuvluraq) and Pauline Cove (Ilutaq) and the flood plain. When the Arctic is this epically beautiful, I am even less keen to leave!!! We collect the data and have time for a final sauna and dip in the Arctic Ocean in addition to finishing all of the final packing. Will we be off tomorrow? Only time will tell.
Update Wednesday 8:20 AM, 15th August 2018: The skies are clear over the mountains and towards Inuvik. The ceiling height above the island is at least 1000 ft. The winds have died down and the seas are calm. There is no fog. Great conditions for a plane fight – and for flying drones, but the drones will have to wait for next year because the plane is on its way in less than two hours. Time to do/re-do the final packing, cleaning and to lug our bags out to the runway.
In the distance along the strip, we see one of the male muskox ambling along and when we look closer with him we see the fox. It looks like the fox is teasing the muskox, jumping around near its ankles. If only we didn’t have to pack and get our stuff to the airstrip, we could watch this wildlife encounter unfold properly. Instead we have to try to encourage that muskox to leave the strip before the plane comes!
Update Wednesday, 10:20 AM, 15th August 2018: The twin has landed. We load the plane and say our final goodbyes to the assembled island community. We take a last group photo and get on to the plane to take off and head back to the not-quite-so-real world away from the Arctic.
Words by Isla Myers-Smith, photos by Gergana Daskalova, Isla Myers-Smith and Noah Bell, video by Noah Bell
Summertime at Alexandra Fjord. 78 degrees north. The sun shines all day long.
Around midnight, you can experience the phenomenon of a double sun where the sun reflects off the still waters of the Fjord. One evening, we even had a quadruple sun with sun dogs – the mirrored sunlight in the air – also reflecting off the waters.
Like everywhere in the Arctic, midnight is the most magical time. But to fill you in on life in the High Arctic, here is our routine as the sun rotates around us in the 24-hour light of an Arctic summer’s day.
The mornings are often the coldest time. Temperatures are chilly, fluctuating between zero and 12 degrees. Never go out without your down jacket packed and your hat to hand. The ocean is choked with sea ice and each time the tides rise and fall the ice bergs rotate, melt, and crack to create brand new ice sculptures along the shore. Glaciers flow into the Fjord valleys, with the local Twin Glacier slowly retreating at around five metres a year back up to the permanent ice fields. Ice surrounds you even at the end of July – this is the High Arctic after all.
The daily routine keeps us to schedule (unlike in the Western Arctic where we move to “Herschel Time”) with morning (7:30 am) and evening (7:00 pm) “sched.” – a radio communication for all of the remote camps with the logistics coordinators at the Polar Continental Shelf Programme Headquarters in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
“Hello 26, this is Alexandra Fjord, we hear you 5 by 5, all is well and we have no traffic”.
Breakfast times are a chance to catch up with the research crew, analyze our last night’s dreams with the “Dream book” or learn an Inuktitut phrase such as ‘would you like some coffee’? ᑳᐱᑐᕈᒪᕖᑦ? It is also a chance to chat about field research progress and to plan the days and the science with the team. After breakfast and packing it is out to the field – Cassiope, Dryas, Willow, Sax Opp, Fert, or far away Dome are the field sites that one could be heading off to. Or maybe it is a hike farther afield to the glacier or up the fjord valley hill-slopes.
When you are on Team Drone, the packing takes a bit longer and the backpacks are a fair bit heavier with drones, sensors, calibration panels, many batteries, water bottles… and of course lunch! But once you get out there (which often doesn’t take long), and the weather is good, then it’s drones in the air. Drones can be a bit challenging in the High Arctic, only a few hundred km from the magnetic North pole, but more on that in another blog post. We were pretty surprised by how well the data collection went given the potential pitfalls of drone work in this far north, from GPS to weather challenges. All and all it was an incredibly productive trip with over 600 GB of drone data collected!
By the middle of the day, you are getting hungry. Time to eat your sandwich and share your daily chocolate bar – will it be a Mars Bar, Twix, Kit Kat or Coffee Crisp? The views are always stunning whichever way you look as you lunch and the skies are always changing. This summer we had a celestial encounter with a massive fireball exploding over the fjord – to find out more check out Jeff’s account of the meteor (in prep!). And if you read the media reports they say that “nobody saw it”, but we did or some of us did!!!
Once the fieldwork is done and the sun is moving lower in the sky and towards the North it is time to pack up the drone gear and head back to camp. On the way back to our Arctic home of white-painted wooden RCMP buildings you might chance to see an Arctic hare or our fjord companion the Arctic fox. When you get back to camp you can drop the bags, enjoy the views out across the water and head inside to start some metadata recording and to back up all the drone imagery as the dinner preparations progress.
After sched., a leisurely dinner, dishes and once the data are all backed up it could be time for an epic game of Boggle where, if you can’t find actual words, feel free to write down potential new ones like:
Bant (noun) – One unit of banter. e.g., “I met Isla out on the tundra and we had a quick bant before getting back to work”.
Murl (verb) – To spit out one’s tooth paste, but in such a way as there is no spitting involved. Somewhat similar to hurling up your tooth paste, but less active. “We gathered around the slop pit to murl before heading to bed.” (Jeff here: Turns out Murl IS a word. We were close to the correct definition. I want my points!)
Besides, the polar bear ate sections L to M of the dictionary, so if your word starts with any of those letters, no one can prove that your word isn’t real!
After murling, enjoying the midnight rays of the sun glancing off the water, and getting ready for bed, the last person has to bar the door with the long plank. Up at Alex Fjord, we are staying in polar bear country and at all times one needs to be aware that we could get a visit from the year-round, white and fluffy inhabitants of this part of the Arctic. The RCMP buildings get annual winter visits from the local bear who has left his nose and paw prints on the windows and walls.
The end of the day is closing your eyes with the golden light washing over you from the windows, wishing you could stay up longer, but knowing that 7:30am sched. is just a few short hours away.
Here we have “Izzy Rich”, the garden bed named after our 2017 field assistant Izzy!
At the moment, one Salix richardsonii individual is the tallest plant in the garden at 156 cm, which makes it the king or queen of the (Arctic) jungle! We will be back in August though so there is still time for other plants to have a go at dethroning it. A close-up view of our willows is spectacular, but I have to say that looking up every once in a while from callipers and measuring tapes and seeing the majestic mountains surrounding Kluane lake does not get old – this is truly is a magical place.
Climbing up mountains
Behind our experiment at the shores of Kluane Lake rise the mountains that gives us a chance to step, in just a few hours, into the tundra. Aside from the abundance of shrubs, grasses and beautiful alpine flowers that are our primary attraction to these climes, we have also over the last few years been helping Anna Hargreaves to examine patterns of herbivory. Laying out seeds and cages, we keep an eye out for critters and flutters, picking and scratching, and most often of all, the scraping of teeth and piles of poo that signify a small mammal has found our caches. This year we have added fake caterpillars to expand the repertoire of munching mementos. All went well with putting out the seeds, though it turned out the fake caterpillars were hard to work with in the summer heat! But we managed. Either way, the birds didn’t seem overly keen – only one, maybe three, caterpillars got pecked. Whatever the task, it hardly matters once atop the mountains: the views are reliably beautiful!
Drones! We still have them, none have broken yet. The main task of our test flights while in Kluane was adding the Sequoia multi-spec sensor to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro (editor’s note: for non-drone folks I think that means ‘added a cool camera to a mini helicopter’). The flights were a success with slight glitches that have been corrected by now. The only casualty during our flight operations were my ankles which were not properly protected from the mosquitoes during the first flight at dusk. If anything it was a proper introduction to the bugs that we’ll face while on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island. Once all flights were completed, we carried five gallon buckets from the lake to water the community garden through herds of black flies.
Yes, I was sore the next morning.
Exploring – from the ground to the sky!
In between measuring leaves, counting seeds and flying drones, we also got to explore the icefields near Kluane – a magical experience! Our favourites included the super high mountains, the rich turquoise colour of the little pools among the ice, and just the all around grandeur of the place. Majestical, as the movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople would put it.
We are now off to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island for the next, longer stretch of our field season! In less than two hours, us and many boxes are scheduled to depart for Qikiqtaruk. Oh the adventure that lies ahead…we can’t wait!
Running a field experiment four thousand miles from your office, by the side of an alpine lake, set in great tracts of boreal forest in the north of Canada…that is bordering on foolishness.
For the past five years we have been propagating tundra willows in a warmer home. Plucked from icy mountainsides and wind-swept islands, these hardy plants have been relocated to the relative comfort of Kluane Lake, around 8°C warmer than their mother land. The speed at which they have been growing, and the differences across source sites, tells us a lot about how climate change could transform the tundra.
Of course, one problem with studying the effects on climate change is that, well, the climate changes.
This spring, and now on into the summer the rain did not fall.
Five years on from their first shoots appearing, many of our tundra willows are not coping well with the heat and the drought. Beasts of Kluane Lake that have put on over a metre of new growth in past years, are this year skeletons, long limbs lying cracked and brown in the heat. And yet other species are soaking up the sun and the heat like tourists abroad. Our field correspondant, Gergana Daskalova, reports:
“The garden looked very different compared to last year! The pulchras are not taking the heat well – the really big willows have lost all their big branches and just have new shoots coming up the bottom now. Richardsonii growing strong though! There were signs of drought damage all around…we will continue watering.”
Perhaps our gamble will still pay off after all. We already have many years of great data, and many willows still alive (for now). And of course, this is itself great data: climate change may help tundra shrubs grow fast and tall – but extreme events could finish many of them off. As with so many questions of science, the excitement is in the discovery.
Meanwhile, a huge thanks to this years’ field team, and particularly to Sian and Lance at Kluane Lake for all your watering.
And now I’m off to check the bookie’s odds for rain.
It a really really long way from the Eastern to the Western Arctic. Via scheduled commercial routes, it would take me over three days of plane flights in a row to get from my one field site to the other this summer – I will not be trying it all in one go. Two days and over 14 hours of flying over six legs… and I am only as far north as the town of Resolute – still a stop away from the final three-hour charter flight out to Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island. This must be the farthest I have ever traveled only just making it out of one time zone, pretty much straight north from Ottawa to Resolute.
It is a long way to come for this field season in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. After the different parts of Team Shrub briefly united and then parted again in Vancouver, we are now separated by over a thousand kilometers on either site of the Canadian Arctic. PhD student Jakob, stayed back in Europe the far, far north of Europe and has just landed on Svalbard! So, why divide forces this year to send drone and plant research teams to three different parts of the Arctic – Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Yukon, Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut and Svalbard in Norway?
This year on Team Shrub, we’re working to capture a biome-wide perspective on the question of what is causing the tundra greening as seen from satellites and how representative our long-term monitoring records are of vegetation change across the landscape as a whole. In addition to trying to unpick this biome-wide perspective on tundra greening, we want to understand the tundra browning side of the question too, and are continuing to capture the rates of permafrost thaw and coastal erosion. Here, on Team Ellesmere, my colleague Jeff Kerby from Dartmouth College and I are headed out to join the research group of Greg Henry from the University of British Columbia at Greg’s long-term ecological research site informally known as ‘Alex’. So, that’s why we’re headed – northeast (though west from Scotland still!) to the Eastern Canadian Arctic.
Funded by the NERC UK-Canada Arctic Bursary Programme, the Royal Geographical Society, some gear from Jeff’s last National Geographic Society grant and with support from the Polar Continental Shelf Program, we’re equipped with three multicopter platforms and two fixed-wing platforms for each of the Yukon and Ellesmere Teams and a new thermal camera and RedEdge sensor from Micasense that literally arrived at the very last minute! Thanks to Emily at Micasense, Sandy from the UBC Geography Department and Cassandra for getting us that last piece of equipment! We are now poised to take off with our drones and capture the landscape perspective on tundra responses to climate change. That is if our drones aren’t too concerned about being this far North and much closer to the magnetic North Pole.
Being in a new part of the Arctic is a bit of a strange feeling. To feel somewhat at home in a place that I have never been to before, but also to feel the culture shock of a superficially similar, yet actually quite different environment to the places that I have been going each summer for fieldwork for the past decade or so. As I airport-hop up from Ottawa to Resolute via Iqaluit, Hall Beach, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay here are a few of the similarities and differences that stand out.
Here, in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, the airports look much the same. The commercial airline companies are different; First Air instead of Air North, but the charter company is still the familiar black and red twin otters of Ken Borek – here there is no subsidiary of Aklak Air though. One surprise for me is the 3G connectivity in the different Arctic communities – we could check up on the World Cup scores as we head North! Sad loss for England though.
There is Inuktitut spoken all around, which is both so similar in sound and somewhat different to Inuvialuktun, the language of the Western Arctic. To illustrate the similarities, umingmak versus umingmuk are the words for Muskox in the two languages for example. The villages have a similar feel and people are really friendly, but the views out the plane window are surprisingly different.
The glacial history of the Eastern Arctic is unmistakable even to the eyes of an ecologist! Large striations and scrapes of the ice sheet are still visible everywhere you look. There are exposed and weather beaten hills and dramatic carved out fjords. Here, even though it is the second week of July, there are snow patches on land and sea ice in the water, and with white clouds above – the color pallet is more white and brown than green like out West.
There is no majestic Mackenzie River, no flat Yukon North Slope stretching as far as the eye can see and no trees dotting the landscape like just north of Inuvik. Here, the tundra vegetation appears more barren, eking out an existence on the exposed and windblown slopes. But, I have already seen some happy looking Salix arctic – the circumArctic willow species – and yellow Arctic poppy flowers blowing in the breeze, which makes me feel right at home!
Papaver radicatum (arctic poppy) – always a standout across the tundra landscape with its bright yellow colour.
Salix arctica (arctic willow) dispersing seeds on Qikiqtaruk. This ground-hugging shrub is found across much of the tundra biome.
During our (hopefully) only full day of logistics here in Resolute, we unpacked and packed our bags, roamed the loading bay finding research equipment from days of yore. Last summer in 2017, Jeff was headed on an epic nine-day trip from Qikiqtaruk all the way to the Yamal peninsula in Siberia to collaborate with polymath of the North, Bruce Forbes. This year we blew off the thick layer of dust on boxes of field equipment belonging to the very same Arctic researcher from many moons ago.
Tomorrow morning first thing, if the weather cooperates, we are heading on a 2.5-hour flight north and east off to Alexandra Fjord and out of internet connectivity. On the very same day on the other side of the Canadian Arctic, Team Qikiqtaruk will be flying off from Inuvik to the island. And, Jakob is already up there at 78 degrees North on Svalbard. Three sites, seven field researchers, 16 drones will hopefully turn into terabytes of data to help us understand what is going on as tundra ecosystems warm.
From west to east, the legacy of Pleistocene ice scrapes a green to brown palette, colors that dominate this year’s collaborative research efforts. From one Arctic field site in 2016, to two in 2017 and now in 2018 three! Team Shrub is expanding, just like the tundra shrubs. And we are just a part of the picture. After this summer, we will be able to scale up our ecological findings to sites across the tundra biome using data from the 20 sites spanning 7 Arctic nations of the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network. But first we all need to get out to our research sites!
At the June 2018 Google Earth Engine User Summit in Dublin, Ireland, 200 people came together to learn how to use the Google Earth Engine – a planetary-scale geospatial platform – to reshape our understand of the planet. One of the most exciting things about the three-day user summit was all of the people that we all got to meet from different walks of life, representing different disciplines, organizations and career stages. In the following blog post, we highlight six women using the Google Earth Engine to improve our understanding of global change impacts and make a difference for people around the planet.
Satellite datasets indicate a substantial greening trend in the rapidly warming Northern reaches of our planet. Field scientists like myself have also observed vegetation change at sites around the tundra. The satellite greening pattern is thought to be caused by this on-the-ground vegetation change, but when we compare the satellite greening observed in pixels the size of farm fields or football pitches with the vegetation change observed in 1 m squared plots, we don’t always see these patterns matching up.
One way to figure out what specifically is causing the greening trends observed in satellites is to add higher resolution data into the mix using drones. Drones can carry sensors that are similar to those on satellites, yet they provide imagery below the clouds and at very high resolutions with pixel sizes of centimeters instead of meters or kilometers.
Ever since I first got the opportunity to visit the Arctic over 10 years ago, I have been fascinated with how this temperature-limited biome at the extremes of our planet is rapidly responding as the planet warms. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and the impacts of that warming are already being felt from thawing permafrost soils to increases in shrubs. All these changes could create climate feedbacks that could accelerate warming not only in the Arctic but for the Earth as a whole.
The Google Earth Engine provides the platform that will allow us to integrate analyses of satellite datasets with the high-resolution drone data that my collaborators and I are collecting at sites across the Arctic (https://arcticdrones.org/). At the 2018 Earth Engine user summit, I led a hackathon to explore how we can integrate drone data into analyses of satellite datasets and change in the Arctic. In just four hours, we made huge progress towards the analyses that will allow us to explore what is driving the greening of the Arctic and better predict how tundra ecosystems will respond as the planet warms.
Our drone hackathon app that allows users to explore what landscape level features such as bare ground patches might best explain when drone and satellite datasets don’t match up. This app was produced using the Google Earth Engine at the 2018 User Summit in Dublin, Ireland.
Land-use change is the most significant driver of ecosystem change around the world (IPBES reports), yet its effects on temporal trends in populations and biodiversity have not yet been quantified on a global scale. We don’t yet know to what extent all of the impacts that humans have had on the planet’s ecosystems have translated into the losses and gains of species at sites all around the world.
By synthesizing global datasets of temporal trends in global change drivers and the biodiversity of ecosystems, we can test for the relationship between the magnitude and timing of for example forest cover change and the populations and communities of the Earth’s biota.
My passion for quantifying land-use trends stems from having observed marked differences in land cover around my home village in Bulgaria, Tyurkmen. During my PhD at the University of Edinburgh, I am extending my personal knowledge of land-use change from my homeland to the global scale. I am integrating the global BioTime dataset with records of land-use change including forest loss and gain and conversion from forests to agriculture and also agricultural abandonment when nature takes over again.
The analyses required to test the link between biodiversity and land-use change are very computationally intensive. Attending the Earth Engine Users Summit allowed me to advanced my skills, so I can now extract information from global remote-sensing databases, quantify land-use change through time, and visualize the intensity of global change drivers around the world. This training is putting me one key step closer to understanding the impacts of humans on the biodiversity of planet Earth.
This app illustrates forest cover change at sites around the world where biodiversity monitoring is being conducted. My research will explore the attribution of biodiversity change to land-use change including the loss and gain of forests around the world.
Data Scientist at the Arnhold Institute for Global Health MPH, Epidemiology Student at the Icahn School of Medicine
Understanding the ways climate, environmental factors, land change, and resource use effects the health of people around the world is critical to improving the health and well-being of communities and earth’s ecosystems. Specifically, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a guideline to ‘transform our world’ into a better and more sustainable global environment for everyone. Some of the SDGs that reflect my work in global health and epidemiology are ‘good health and well-being’, ‘clean water and sanitation’, and ‘climate action.’
With the ease of accessibility to global data, understanding the interaction of environmental variables and infrastructure variables on human health has never been easier or quicker. Google Earth Engine (GEE) has allowed for a quick and easy way to render all the data needed to respond to global health challenges in a timely and scientifically rigorous manor. I am able to use the comprehensive data catalog provided in GEE to analyze health trends and export such results into other platforms for further analysis in an uncomplicated and reproducible way.
My fascination with technology and my passion for improving health around the world have always been at odds with one another, fighting for the front row. There seemed to be a gap between the two; health workers studied one thing and engineers studied the other. Earth Engine bridges the divide between health research and technology to give researchers a tool that integrates the two fields seamlessly, resulting in a better understanding of global health dynamics.
Liza Goldberg Intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Biospheric Sciences Lab Student at Atholton High School https://mangrovescience.org/
Mangrove ecosystems hold high ecological and economic value in coastal communities around the world. They provide key ecosystem services including coastal protection of communities during storms, biodiversity harboring, support of fishing-based economies, and high sequestration of carbon. However, nearly half of Earth’s mangroves have been lost over the past 50 years due to pressures ranging from aquacultural and agricultural growth to urbanization, extreme weather, and erosion. In order to prevent such losses from continuing, it is necessary to develop a real-time monitoring system with the capacity to track mangrove loss and degradation in vulnerable regions. A lack of such a monitoring system limits the ability of coastal communities to best preserve surrounding mangroves for their ecosystem services and ecological benefit, further limiting the scope of informed restoration and policy measures.
EcoMap, the Electronic Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Program, is an interactive portal that allows users to map and monitor global mangrove vulnerability and loss in real-time. Using Earth Engine’s capacity to efficiently aggregate satellite data from a variety open-source datasets, EcoMap quantifies risk for both anthropogenic and ecological loss drivers, including urban expansion, agricultural and aquacultural growth, precipitation, and erosion. Through an interface developed entirely in Earth Engine, users have the ability to evaluate maps for each individual mangrove loss driver, analyze total mangrove vulnerability estimates, track changes in forest greenness over time, weight each loss driver when calculating total mangrove vulnerability, and evaluate the proportion of vulnerable forests in each mangrove-holding nation. Earth Engine provides the ideal platform for programs like EcoMap that seek to bring satellite-based analysis to non-expert users around the world.
After finishing a science fair project that sought to evaluate the impact of climate change on red maple sampling carbon fluxes, I was presented with the opportunity to work with a group of mangrove researchers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at age 14. Around that time, several news stories broke about recent extreme mangrove losses in the Gulf of Carpentaria region of Northern Australia. Several thousand hectares of mangrove forests were lost within a two-year period, and I was surprised that no system existed to predict and monitor the risk for such immense losses before they occurred. To solve this problem, I began developing the EcoMap platform in Earth Engine to serve as a global means of real-time mapping of mangrove vulnerability. I have continued building EcoMap since, and look forward to bringing the program to communities in several East and West African nations to monitor local mangrove loss and risk. Using EcoMap, I hope to promote sustainable use of such vital ecosystems, ultimately preventing the recurrence of such extreme die-offs in the future.
The GEE Summit breakout sessions allowed me to learn several key methods for object-based classification and land use change analysis, both of which I can use to better predict the effects of growth of particular stressors on mangrove degradation and loss. The summit also gave me the opportunity to meet other researchers who may be interested in collaborating in the release of a final web-based/mobile EcoMap product. I was thrilled to both learn these new techniques to enhance EcoMap and network with other attendees who share a common interest in using GEE to bridge the gap between science and sustainable development.
The Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative is a research program at Yale which fosters science-based land management across the intermountain American West. We partner with land managers such as ranchers and conservation organizations to work on questions about wildlife habitat, soil carbon, invasive species and achieving management goals for working lands. As a geospatial analyst, I make maps and build tools using both field and earth observation data to answer those questions. I also work closely with graduate students to help them harness the power of platforms like Earth Engine for their own research. At this year’s summit, I presented a lightning talk on how we are building a community of Earth Engine users at Yale University. We are doing that through a combination of peer-teaching, outreach and student mentorship in collaboration with a graduate course on geospatial software design taught by Professor Dana Tomlin.
I want to use geospatial analysis and earth observation data to tackle social and environmental challenges. As someone who studied both anthropology and forestry, I am curious about the way natural and social systems interact, and how human values impact the management of ecosystems. We live in an era of unprecedented change and resources as the increasing amount of data and processing power available makes new questions and new answers possible. Anyone with an internet connection can calculate global forest loss by year with a few lines of code on Earth Engine. Seeing the wide variety of challenges that are being addressed by developers on Earth Engine gives me hope that we can actually beat the tide on these issues. How? By turning data into useful information that can be acted upon by decision-makers.
I was particularly excited about now being able to publish apps built using the Earth Engine User Interface functionality with the click of a button. This will extend the impact of our tools as it has made updating and maintaining them a lot easier. Land managers who may not be expert GIS users or programmers can now easily access the results from our tools. I was also glad to see the interest in starting up other user groups in other organizations and universities, and have been in contact with other fellow conference attendees who are leading such initiatives. Seeing people take the new skills they learned during the conference and implement them into prototype solutions during the hackathon was inspiring to me.
First-year university student Earth Sciences Department, Dartmouth College
For my independent project at Dartmouth College, I study river mixing: when two rivers carrying different amounts of sediment join, how do their waters mix downstream of their confluence? Next year, I will use the skills and knowledge I’ve gained to investigate gold mining in the Amazon basin. Miners remove sediment from the rivers and add mercury to it because it bonds with the gold, allowing it to be extracted. When the sediment is returned to the river, it contains mercury which then can be taken up by fish in the river. This is a critical problem to address because fish are an important food source for those living in the Amazon basin.
Earth Engine— obviously, but, most notably— allows for data analysis on completely global scales. For my introductory research project, I have been able to amass data from rivers all over the world; Earth Engine allows us as researchers to make very broad statements about our planet’s processes (or anything else under investigation) because of the magnitude of not only data accessible, but also of its processing power. I have learned that the Earth Engine is more than just a tool to use for research but an interface embedded in a network of users, from whom I have already learned so much.
As I have been making my entrance into the scientific world, I have learned more about the inner workings of the research and publication processes. What it takes to get grants approved, the mechanics and biases of peer review, and the ultimate quest for publication. I understand it can be easy to get caught up in these details and, in a way, pursue science for science’s sake. However, I hope to continually acknowledge the power science has for change and use it for bettering our planet, whatever that might look like in my future. The problem of mercury infiltrating the waters of the Amazon basin is very real and dangerous for a large population of people. I look forward to continuing this research with more than just a publication in mind – with the goal to make an impact through my research.
I am very inspired to see how so many women are carving their paths through the scientific community. I am fortunate that my school has a fantastic Women in Science Project that allowed me to gain exposure to geospatial data analysis and the Earth Engine. That being said, the department in which I research and my group of mentors are both very significantly male-dominated. I have been fortunate to receive only support from those I work with, but to speak very personally with many women at the conference allowed me to believe more in what I am capable of accomplishing. In a way, I know this positive experience at the summit will help me achieve academic goals in my future— it will never fail to empower me, reminding of our capabilities as scientists.
At the Earth Engine User Summit, I got to meet the very people who created this beautiful tool – a very unique experience and a chance to ask questions or provide feedback. However, as a researcher very early in my scientific career, the most important thing I gleaned from the conference was meeting the other amazing women (#GalsofGEE) and speaking and sharing about our experiences and women in science.
The participants of the GEE Summit! Photo Credit: Alan Rowlette.
Entering the Google Building in Dublin all Earth Engine User Summit participants saw their names on the stairs!
Participating in the Earth Engine hackathon.
Earth Engine excitement! Photo Credit: David Carmichael
Schmooszing at the Earth Engine Summit. Photo Credit: Alan Rowlette.
by Isla, Gergana, Lauren, Liza, Sabrina and Shannon
We were both intimidated and excited to attend. The thing that struck us most as we walked into the Google Campus in Dublin was seeing our names on the illuminated stairs, which made us feel like we belong in this global community of remote-sensing scientists, conservationists, government researchers, small business and start up communities.
A nice welcome to the GEE Users Summit!
The on-screen bios were great for putting faces to names and learning about the diversity of ways in which people are using the Earth Engine!
The on-screen bios were great for putting faces to names and learning about the diversity of ways in which people are using the Earth Engine!
We are ecologists so we don’t always think of ourselves as programmers… how that changed, perception of quantitative skills. We always have our research questions at the forefront of our minds, but it was amazing to explore using a new tool to address. We learned new skills and pushed ourselves farther than we’ve gone before in terms of our quantitative skills.
Earth Engine excitement! Photo Credit: David Carmichael
Learning about User Interfaces and the Earth Engine. Photo Credit: Google Photography
Our favourite new skills
Breakpoint algorithms and LandTrendr
LandTrendr is set of spectral-temporal segmentation algorithms that allow us to detect changes in satellite imagery through time. Applications include monitoring changes in forest cover due to logging and fires, as well as changes in land cover types in general.
Using the Python API to access the GEE
We think of ourselves as primarily R users, so it can be daunting to step outside of our comfort zone, but we did it!
Machine-learning and TensorFlow
Outcome-ish: Flowers and stuff about Karol’s dissertation
• Science communication and engagement
We were especially excited about the preview of the user interface app feature for the Earth Engine! We had lots of fun building our first interactive apps and are looking forward to using web apps to share the findings of our research!
Maps and embedding google maps into websites.
You can check out Isla’s NDVI
Websites and search engine optimisation
We also learned about using Lighthouse to audit website performance. Lighthouse is a great free tool to see how users experience your website, and the suggestions for improvements are quite useful. We changes a few quick things on the Team Shrub website and our performance score sure went up! Though we still have lots of photos that are bound to slow down the website, we quite like sharing photos, so a few seconds of a loading delay is worth it for us!
Our improved website performance!
Auditing the Team Shrub website performance and user experience!
Our abundance of large photos slows our website down, we do love having lots of photos there, so a compromise is to use file formats such as JPG 2000.
Hackathon: Drones and the Earth Engine
How can we integrate very high resolution RGB and multispectral drone data into multi-scale analyses?
The drone hackathon was a chance to explore working with drone data in the Earth Engine and a meet up for people to discuss and test the power of the Earth Engine to answer key research questions with drone datasets.
Coding away during the Drone Hackathon
Presenting the outputs of the Drone Hackathon
Hackathon: Detecting land abandonment using LandTrendr
Gergana participated in the LandTrendr hackathon, which linked nicely with her research of the effects of land-use intensification and land abandonment on population and biodiversity change through time. During our hackathon, we explored how we can use LandTrendr to detect the timing, magnitude and duration of land abandonment.
Inspiring to meet people with great ambitious and capabilities from different disciplines and at different career stages! Photo Credit: David Carmichael
The participants of the GEE Summit! Photo Credit: Alan Rowlette.
Here’s to trying again, aiming high and overcoming coding errors and all sorts of other challenges!
We are super inspired by the new skills we have and we can’t wait to get coding! Though of course it’s always great to expand your skill set, the most inspirational part for us was meeting an amazing group of people. From high school students, first year undergraduates to Rebecca Moore, the Director of the Earth Engine and Earth Outreach Programmes, we were thrilled to meet so many motivated and determined people.
Here’s to the Earth Engine and all the important research questions it can help us answer!
Time flies when you’re preparing for fieldwork in the Arctic! From months to weeks to now days of preparation left before we head north to the Arctic there is always much to do! Styrofoam parts have step-by-step turned into drones, permit applications and risk assessments have been submitted and approved, protocol files have been written and refined and our boxes and bags have been piling up and making their way across the ocean ready to head North! Read on to find out more about what is in store for Team Shrub during the 2018 field season!
Field season is coming
Mid June on Qikiqtaruk (photo credit: Cameron Eckert)
It is a late spring on Qikiqtaruk this year (photo credit: Cameron Eckert)
Catching the bus to Glasgow to catch my fight to Canada
Our goals for the 2018 field season
Warming of tundra ecosystems is causing rapid rates of ecological change in the Arctic from vegetation change to dramatic permafrost thaw. Recent advances in drone technology allow us to quantify these climate change responses. This summer, funded by the Royal Geographical Society‘s Walters Kundert Fellowship, we will be testing the correspondence of tundra greenness, productivity, phenology and permafrost disturbance across spatial and temporal scales on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island, Yukon. How quickly is vegetation changing and permafrost thawing and can we predict where in the landscape the most rapid changes might occur? This research will allow us to answer this question and to identify the optimum scale of observation for tundra change.
Drones also allow us to quantify the landscape context of ecological change in ways that were not possible with on-the-ground data collection or satellite observations from space. Funded by a UK-Canada collaboration bursary from the NERC Arctic Office, we will use our drones to capture the representativeness of long-term ecological monitoring at focal research sites including Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Yukon, Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut in collaboration with Greg Henry’s lab at the University of British Columbia and on Svalbard with collaborators from the Norwegian Polar Institute. We will use drones to collect spectral and structural data of tundra vegetation across scales of observation following common protocols established by the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network and will combine these data collection with ongoing ecological monitoring. Are our long-term records of vegetation change really representative of the change going on across the tundra biome? This summer’s research will help us figure out the answer to this key question.
Grass and dryas dominated Komakuk
This year for the first time, members of team shrub are off in three directions this summer from West to East and of course North to the Arctic! To find out more about members of the team this year and the specific projects they will be leading – read on!
The 2018 field crew:
So glad to have my Team Shrub hat in the chilly weather!
Mariana looking forward to an Arctic summer
Heading out into the field in Pika Camp
Test flying in the very non-Arctic heat near DC
Jeff pondering wind speeds and mosquitos
Isla and the fixed wing
Jakob and his Continental Betula nana (Whale Bay on the mainland).
How is Arctic plant diversity changing through time? – by Gergana
We’ve been monitoring vegetation change on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island for around 10 years now, and we are looking forward to another round of some of the classic tundra protocols – such as pointframing! It’ll be our seventh year of collecting data on the changing plant communities in 12 1x1m plots. Last year we found 32 species in both the Herschel and Komakuk plots, will we spot any new species in the plots this year? An added bonus will be the second run of the ITEX species pool protocol – we will start from the center of our plots and walk around in concentric circles (trying not to get too dizzy), recording all new plant species along the way. We will get the precise locations of the first individuals of each new species, so that then we can link the rate at which we find new species with the characteristic of the landscape, derived from drone imagery! Understanding tundra biodiversity changes at this and the other sites in the International Tundra Experiment Network requires looking beyond the 1x1m plots – a key goal of this summer’s research.
At what rate are shrubs expanding in the Arctic? – by Mariana
Another Qikiqtaruk classic field activity is continuing the repeat time series photographs of Ice Creek (see below). Each year the team captures photos in the same location looking out at the very same view as a photo that was first taken in 1987. In this series of photographs you can clearly see the vegetation change that has been occurring on the island over time. This year’s first aim is, of course, to continue the time series! But we will also take a new approach to quantify shrub growth over time with image analysis software by combining these repeat photographs with plot surveys and drone imagery. This will allow us to precisely quantify the shrub change that has occurred in this flood plain landscape and also enable us to better forecast future responses of shrub expansion across sites in the tundra. Are we seeing this dramatic change because the climate is warming, the growing seasons are getting longer or because this permafrost landscape is thawing releasing more nutrients into this Arctic watershed? Only with more data, will we know the answer.
First Test Flights in North America – by Noah
I’m new this year and looking forward to making my way North to the Arctic for the first time to fly drones for Team Shrub. A few newly purchased or built drones were sent to me in Washington, D.C. so I could practice flying before reaching the island. However, DC is the largest ‘No Drone Zone’ in the United States! Once reviewing flight procedures and assembling the drone fleet, Jeff and I drove an hour out of town, outside of the Federal Aviation Administration’s no fly zone, in search of an area suitable for operations. After a few failed attempts, we convinced a farmer to let us use his open field that was mostly used for polo matches on the weekends. This made for ideal conditions to launch and land the fixed-winged platforms. We successfully completed flights with the DJI Mavic Pro and Parrot Disco Pro Ag using the Pix4D capture app for mission planning. Finally, we completed multiple flight missions with the newly built FX-61 fixed wing: Malruk (the number two in Inuvialuktun the language). After two days spent testing drones with minor technical issues, no damaged equipment, and some brutally hot and humid weather, we packed everything in the car and rushed to the airport for Jeff to catch his flight out of town! With drone training complete, I am excited to join up with the field crew and to head up north to go collect some drone data!
Noah mounting the Parrot Disco fixed-wing with the Sequoia multispectral camera
Jeff preparing the Malruk FX-61 for its first flight in the United States
Test flying in the very non-Arctic heat near DC
Jakob celebrating a successful first test flight!
Headed to the High Arctic – by Isla
I’ve been working in the Arctic for over a decade now. Seems like a long time ago that I first made my way across the Arctic circle in 2002 to check out the Toolik Lake research station – when I first discovered my love for tundra shrubs. Since then I have been to many tundra locations around the North, but there is one place I have never been – the Canadian High Arctic and Ellesmere Island. For as long as I have been working in Arctic ecosystems, I have been hoping to make it up to the iconic Alexandra Fjord research site. This is one of the longest running tundra ecological monitoring programmes out there led by Greg Henry from the University of British Columbia. Since 1992, Greg’s Lab have been monitoring the plant communities. Our very own Anne Bjorkman conducted her PhD research at this site. In fact, Team Shrub has been working with data from “Alex” for over five years now, but this summer for the very first time I will actually get to go myself and with the help of Team Shrub collaborator Jeff Kerby add some new drone data collection into the mix. With the data we hope to collect this summer, we hope to contextualize the long-term records from this site. This work will allow researchers to return in future to the precise locations where data collection has occurred for the past three decades. The drone data from this summer will also help us to figure out if long-term ecological monitoring records here, on Qikiqtaruk in the Yukon, and elsewhere in the Arctic are really representative of the responses to global change across the tundra biome.
photo credit: Anne Bjorkman
photo credit: Anne Bjorkman
photo credit: Anne Bjorkman
photo credit: Anne Bjorkman
So, here’s to a productive field season for Team Shrub! In our final days of field preparation we will be working hard, so that we are as prepared as we can be for the field adventures to come.