A Drone Pilot’s Misadventures During His First Arctic Field Season

It was day three on the island: too early in the field season for a first timer like myself to know any of the tricks to surviving a day like the one we were about to encounter. It was a beautiful, balmy sunny day with no winds. Gergana and I hiked an hour with our 70 pound battery-filled packs to get to our drone staging area for the day. As we settled in, I noticed there was a swarm of mosquitoes flying around us. This was it. This was the encounter everyone had warned me about before departing for the Arctic. I was going to have to last the rest of the day with the few provisions that I had brought in my pack fighting off that relentless swarm of bugs.

Mission planning a drone flight from a different perspective and trying to keep the bugs off of my face

I spent the remaining 10 hours in the field that day completely miserable. Quickly realizing that I did not bring the correct attire to deal with these airborne creatures (if that was even possible), and they weren’t going anywhere without a breath of wind that day. During lunch, I lost count of how many bugs I swallowed while reaching for a bite of my veggie wrap, but I was too hungry to skip a meal, so I had to make do with the extra protein I was consuming. By mid-afternoon, I completely gave up. Bugs were everywhere; I now had two bites on the inside of my mouth and my lower lip was noticeably swollen. I had reached a new low and all I could think was, how did I get here? Why did I pass up that internship in the city this summer? That office was in an air controlled building with no bugs! During our walk back to camp later that evening, I pondered what the next month on this remote Arctic island would look like, and how I would manage to survive it.

Enjoying the late evening views from Pauline Cove during our first day on the island

We returned to camp late that evening. The four of us members of Team Shrub sat at the table outside for dinner under the midnight sun enjoying each other’s company, eating a delicious home cooked meal and sharing the struggles of the day’s field work. The evening concluded with brushing my teeth on the coast, looking out over the glassy water to the most beautiful sunset I’d even seen in my entire life. It was overwhelming to appreciate all of the beauty that this landscape had to offer at that moment. All of the struggles from earlier that day seemed well worth it now.


This is how most days of the field season followed: I would experience a setback or struggle that made me question why I was here, that was almost immediately followed with an experience to remind me why I was. Seeing the most terrifying, yet cutest, baby caribou up close; getting completely soaked in the field and coming home to a majestic whale-watching scene on a sauna night; having back-to-back botched days of drone missions due to compass issues from the much closer magnetic north, then enjoying an amazing feast surrounded by the best of company; enduring sub-freezing temperatures in August, then a lovely warm campfire with live music that same evening.

IMG_3424.JPGThere were plenty of issues that arose during the field season including: a series of earthquakes, a tsunami warning scare, multiple grizzly and polar bear evacuations, a variety of types of inclement weather from wind to rain to snow, drone malfunctions including compass and accelerometer errors, and that most difficult of times when we ran out of ranch dressing. But there were also an abundance of equally incredible experiences to offset all of the setbacks of the trip including meeting new people, learning about their research, getting to fly new drones, seeing all sorts of Arctic wildlife, experiencing the local culture. I hiked over 15 miles one day in awful weather with wet shoes using a measuring tool that only had German instructions and yet it was one of the best days I had that whole summer all because of the company and scenery that the day had to offer.

The challenges from the field season on Qikiqtaruk made me appreciate the wildlife, culture, and experiences so much more. Now, as I’m writing this blog post in my air-conditioned office eating lunch from the cafeteria downstairs, I’m daydreaming of the
amazing work days I had in the far away Arctic; eager for another incredible experience that the tundra has to offer, even if it means dealing with some setbacks. Although, this chicken wrap does taste better without mosquitoes in it.

A successful flight completed with the Disco in a field of Arctic cottongrass

On a more serious note, I want to ​send out a huge thanks to the Yukon Park Rangers who looked after us during our time on the island, and who put our safety above their own. To all those on Qikiqtaruk last summer – for all the good and bad it was the adventure of a life time.

Words by Noah Bell, photos and video by Gergana Daskalova, Mariana García Criado,  Sandra Angers-Blondin, and Noah Bell


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.

**Inspired by the 1988 movie “Willow”.**

An epic journey

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 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.

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!

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!

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.

The “Isla Myers-Smith” bed – if you look closely you can see all the dead branches, but there are lots of new shoots as well.

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

Welcome to the Arctic, welcome to the real world

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.

Fog enshrouds the tundra on our final days on the island.

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.

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 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.

Team Drone (aka Team Restless Falcon) in an optimistic looking phase on our way to Slump D.
Team Resting Drone in a less optimistic phase trying to keep our hopes up that the fog might clear!

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?

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.

An island feast bringing together researchers, rangers and the 2018 Qikiqtaruk Elders and Youth Program.
The crew on Qikiqtaruk at the end of the season as Team Shrub was leaving.

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.

The inviting sight as you return to camp of a smoke rising from the Sauna.

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!

A muskox running along the runway just before the plane is due to land.

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.

The twin otter in the air taking off after another successful summer of fieldwork.
Pauline Cove from the air – it doesn’t get much more real than this!

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, photos by Gergana Daskalova, Isla Myers-Smith and Noah Bell, video by Noah Bell

Life in the High Arctic

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, Photos by Jeff Kerby

Summertime at Alexandra Fjord. 78 degrees north. The sun shines all day long.

Around midnight, you can experience the phenomenon of a double sun where the sun reflects off the still waters of the Fjord. One evening, we even had a quadruple sun with sun dogs – the mirrored sunlight in the air – also reflecting off the waters.

Like everywhere in the Arctic, midnight is the most magical time. But to fill you in on life in the High Arctic, here is our routine as the sun rotates around us in the 24-hour light of an Arctic summer’s day.


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.


From the ground to the sky: fieldwork in Kluane

Roaming the common garden

Over the last five years, the common garden in Kluane has allowed us to collect data on the growth of different willow species from across Canada. This experiment enables us to better understand how plants grow in a warmer climate. Over the start of this summer, which has been particularly hot in Kluane, we have continued smothering our plants with love by fertilizing and watering them so they would allow us to take all sorts of measurements on them – including phenology, new growth, leaf length and canopy height.

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.

By Mariana

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!

To find out more:

Hargreaves, A., Suarez, E., Mehltreter, K., Myers-Smith, I., Vanderplank, S.E., Slinn, H.L., Vargas-Rodriguez, Y.L., Haeussler, S., David, S., Munoz, J. and Almazan-Nunoz, R.C., 2018. Seed predation increases from the Arctic to the Equator and from high to low elevations. bioRxiv, p.304634.

By Gergana (and Haydn)

Flying drones

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.

By Noah

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 continued the Team Shrub tradition of a barefoot icefield run – refreshingly brisque! It was quite the contrast to feel the heat of the sun and the chill of the ice at the same time.

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!

By Gergana, Mariana and Noah


Running any field experiment can be a gamble.

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.

The common garden experiment this spring

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.”

Here we have “Izzy Rich”, the garden bed named after our 2017 field assistant Izzy!

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.

CG1 2.jpg

By Haydn

From West to East and Northwards to Ellesmere Island

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.

My travels from west to east to north across Canada to the High Arctic.

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?

At a DEW (Distant Early Warning) line site! The DEW line connects the Arctic from West to East every 100 miles. Previously, we’ve seen some of its radar stations at Komakuk and Shingle Point near Qikiqtaruk!

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.

Sea ice along the Northwest passage – beautiful views along our flight!

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.

Even in really far away places, you can still spot human influences in the Arctic – if you look closely in the bottom right corner, you can spot barrels of fuel.

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.

Sea ice and low growing vegetation – the Arctic views we are familiar with from our previous work in the West.

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.

Pond Inlet – a hamlet in Nunavut with lovely mountains as the backdrop.

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.

Murray the muskox – a wildlife encounter from our 2016 field season on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island.

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.

Shades of brown still dominate the Arctic landscape in the East – the colder temperatures make for a later summer arrival.

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!

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.

So much in Arctic fieldwork is about boxes – we pack, unpack, transport, from one end of the world to the other, in the pursuit of knowledge. Fun to find boxes of field researchers who have come before us!

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.

Small airplanes and a dusty airstrip – a common start to Arctic adventures!

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!

By Isla and Jeff

Women translating ‘pixels to knowledge’ with the Google Earth Engine

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.

Inspiring to meet people with great ambitious and capabilities from different disciplines and at different career stages! From left to right: Lauren Fregosi, Isla Myers-Smith, Rebecca Moore, Shannon Sartain, Gergana Daskalova, Sabrina Szeto, Liza Goldberg. Photo Credit: David Carmichael.

Isla Myers-Smith

Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh

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Isla Myers-Smith, University of Edinburgh, laughing during the DroneHack hackathon coding session at the Google Earth Engine User Summit. Photo credit Alan Rowlette.

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.

Shannon, Isla and the team presenting the outputs of the Drone Hackathon including our app.

Gergana Daskalova

PhD Resarcher, University of Edinburgh

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Gergana Daskalova, University of Edinburgh, learning about user interfaces and the Google Earth Engine. Photo Credit: Alan Rowlette.

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.

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The experimental forest cover change app to visualise the Global Forest Change database and biodiversity monitoring datasets around the world.

Lauren Fregosi

Data Scientist at the Arnhold Institute for Global Health
MPH, Epidemiology Student at the Icahn School of Medicine

Lauren Fregosi, Arnhold Institute for Global Health has a joint passion for technology and improving human health around the world.

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

Liza Goldberg presenting EcoMap, the Electronic Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Program in a lightning talk at the Google Earth Engine User Summit. Photo credit David Lagomasino.

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.

Sabrina Szeto

Geospatial Analyst, Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative
Master of Forestry, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

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Sabrina Szeto, Yale University, presenting about building a community of Earth Engine users at Yale University. Photo Credit: Alan Rowlette.

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.

Shannon Sartain

First-year university student
Earth Sciences Department, Dartmouth College

Shannon Sartain, Dartmouth College, explains river mixing, her independent study project conducted using the Google Earth Engine.

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.

by Isla, Gergana, Lauren, Liza, Sabrina and Shannon

Team Shrub goes to the Google Earth Engine Users Summit

It’s hard to imagine that only four months ago we were starting our introductory training in using the Google Earth Engine. Ever since February, we have been dreaming of how we can address our research questions with the Google Earth Engine. The Google Earth Engine allow us to expand our horizons from scaling from plots to landscapes to the entire tundra biome and to quantifying the drivers of biodiversity change around the planet. GEE gives people an easy and efficient access to many global and regional remote-sensing datasets, with the additional possibility to upload your own data. The GEE training we did in London definitely motivated us to advance our JavaScript skills and we were thrilled to travel to Dublin for the Google Earth Engine Users Summit!

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.

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.

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.

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Estimating time of land abandonment near Tyurkmen in Bulgaria using LandTrendr – the lighter the areas, the earlier they were abandoned (starting in 1986).
  • 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!

Imagery of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island from the Sentinel satellite, as seen through the Python API!
  • 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!

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You can check out Gergana’s forest cover change & biodiversity records app here.
  • Maps and embedding google maps into websites.
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Isla’s NDVI app can be explored here.

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!

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.

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.

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!

By Gergana and Isla