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.
As we prepare for the upcoming field season, the end of my first PhD year looms closely on the horizon. It then seems like a good moment to recap what has been happening during this intense year and to test whether my elevator pitches have improved since I was first overwhelmed to describe my thesis!
My PhD project has turned out to be a bit unconventional, to say the least. I have always been a fan of the big picture and global issues, so when I decided to do a PhD, it was clear that I would be fully embracing macroecology and biogeography topics. The preliminary title of my thesis (because this is perpetually changing) is ‘Quantifying vegetation shifts under climate change in extreme biomes’. What this means is that I am carrying out a comparison of plant responses in two extreme biomes: the tundra and the savannah, both extensively distributed biomes across the planet. You are probably shaking your head and thinking “but… why?”, which is a perfectly normal first reaction and a question that I have been asked lots over the past year.
Let me explain a bit. As you know, the tundra is found at very cold temperatures with low precipitation, while the savannah is found at high temperatures but with a wider range of rainfall conditions. However, both biomes are characterised by a strong seasonality (i.e. summer is the growing season in the tundra, while the savannah is characterised by a dry and a rainy season). Something else that these two have in common is the fact that they are structurally very similar. Both are characterised by an open landscape dominated by mainly grasses and shrubs, with trees too in the case of the savannah. Their ecological structure and functional groups are very similar, with some authors even referring to the tundra the ‘cold savannah’. If you look at the photos below, can you identify which biome is which?
Hint – no trees is usually a good sign that you are in the tundra and not in the savannah. Elephants could potentially be a helpful indicator too though.
These similarities mean that the tundra and the savannah have been undergoing similar changes under current climatic conditions. The most conspicuous process so far is woody expansion or encroachment (a.k.a. shrubification), where trees and shrubs expand into open areas. Shrubification has been reported widely over the last decades in grasslands across the globe. However, the fact that the tundra and the savannah are found in extreme climatic conditions, which are bound to continue shifting under climate change, means that they could be particularly at risk.
While this is good news for shrubs, which are happily conquering new lands, this comes at the cost of other species, such as lichens and mosses, which end up being outcompeted. Wide scale ecosystem changes like this can also affect the carbon cycle and nutrient exchange, and ultimately, the persistence of these biomes at local scales. The tundra can lose ground to in favour of the boreal forest following warming temperatures, while parts of the savannah can be converted to tropical forest or agricultural lands due to herbivory influence and shifts in wildfire regimes.
The tundra and the savannah are pivotal in supporting biodiversity and providing ecosystem services. For this reason, we need to understand if they are responding in a similar manner to climate change or if their behaviours are highly specific – this will enable us to better predict and act in the face of global change. These rates of change rates are yet to be quantified, so here is where I come in! This is what I have been working on for the past year and hope to have some outcomes soon. Stay tuned for some (hopefully interesting) results in the near future!
Our scientific research expeditions to the Arctic often reveal dramatic landscapes, exciting wildlife encounters and lots of natural beauty. We are always keen to widely share those experiences, and one way to bring the Arctic closer to people is through photography. This year, we are continuing our science & art outreach work (you can read more about our outreach events at the Edinburgh Science Festival last year here) by organising a second photography exhibition. This time, in addition to the physical exhibition, we also have an online exhibition, so that anyone with internet access can get a glimpse of Arctic environments, wildlife and ecosystem changes.
We present photographs of Arctic tundra landscapes and the plants and wildlife that inhabit them, captured as a part of scientific research expeditions to the rapidly warming Arctic. Images are captured from above using drones, helicopters or planes and on the ground as we hike out to our research sites. Some of these images are part of scientific datasets used to model the 3D structure of the tundra environment.
This work represents the interface between science and art, where the process of data collection has produced imagery that communicates the reality of global change and captures the patterns and beauty of remote Arctic ecosystems.
You can explore our photography exhibition online here!
Arctic Above – Exhibition in the Main Library, University of Edinburgh
If you are based in Edinburgh or visiting the city to experience Scottish spring, you can also check out our photos in the Main Library of the University of Edinburgh, first floor on the right. It’s always exciting to see our photos printed in large! It is also cool how even though we all have distinct photographic styles, our photos complement one another so well! We hope those who visit our online exhibit as they make their way into the Library to study for their exams or out to enjoy a bit of spring sunshine get a glimpse of what it is like to study the changing ecosystems of the Arctic.
Exhibition prep in the Main Library
Exhibition prep in the Main Library
The Team Shrub Arctic Above Exhibition all set!
Sandra and Gergana set up the exhibition in the Main Library – feel free to stop by to check out the photos and tell us what you think on Twitter – @teamshrub #ArcticAbove!
At over 65 sites around the world, 100s of international researchers with several long-term monitoring protocols and one common aim are working to understanding how the tundra biome is changing.
The ITEX (International Tundra Experiment) network brings together researchers studying the responses of Arctic and alpine plants and ecosystems to global change, with a particular focus on climate change. This synthesis of observations across the tundra has improved our knowledge of the changing tundra plant communities (Elmendorf et al. 2012a, 2015), their responses to experimental warming (Elmendorf et al. 2012b) and the changes to and climate sensitivity of the phenology – timing of leafing out and flower of tundra plant species (Oberbauer et al. 2013, Prevéy et al. 2017). Here, we give you a taster of the research findings that Team Shrub presented at the meeting.
Earlier in April, the 2018 ITEX meeting in Stirling brought together many of the researchers part of the ITEX network to share key findings of their work on how tundra ecosystems are changing and what that might mean for the planet. The meeting kicked off with a field trip to the Scottish hills near Dollar. Through rain, wind and sunshine, our hike reminded us of the days we’ve spend in the Arctic. Amidst the grasses and mosses, there was another flashback to our Arctic days – Eriophorum vaginatum! Growing in the wetter parts of the hills, we found quite a few cottongrass tussocks, an exciting sight for us tundra flora enthusiasts!
Atmospheric Scottish vistas from the pre-conference hike
The castle in Dollar
In the woodlands in Dollar, spring was in full swing – singing wood warblers, beds of wild garlic and primroses in bloom. In typical scientist fashion, we made many stops along the way to talk about the different species we encountered.
Almost perfectly round pools along the stream and mossy cover all around us gave our hike a fairytale-like feel!
Wild garlic almost in bloom
A carpet of woodland plants
Scientists – always pointing at one thing or another!
We made it to the top of the hill, took in the nice view and pondered the landscape around us and how it came to be. How far did the natural treeline used go in Scotland and how have these landscapes changed through time? Has Scotland always looked a bit like the treeless tundra biome?
Next up it was time for some science. Here is a brief summary of the team shrub presentations at the conference.
Gergana presented the key findings of the long-term monitoring on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, among which were increased vegetation cover, less bare ground and a deeper active layer. It was particularly exciting to share the results of the ITEX species pool protocol – Gergana’s absolute favourite protocol! We had a great time during the summer walking around the long-term vegetation plots and recording the different species found across the landscape. Knowing more about the regional species pool can help us predict how local biodiversity trends might change in the future. For example, there are two plant species, Saxifraga nelsoniana and Parrya nudicaulis, that were found within five meters of the vegetation plot, yet they have never been recorded inside it so far.
Haydn presented all about tundra traits and what they are telling us about the rates of change in decomposition with vegetation change in the tundra biome. His take-home message was community-level estimates of tundra decomposition haven’t changed much over time and future change will likely be slow. Anne presented about the changes or lack there off in species and functional diversity over three decades of tundra monitoring. And in some ways it is a similar story – even though there are strong spatial patterns in species diversity from the warm to the cold reaches of the tundra biome, functional diversity doesn’t change as much and species diversity isn’t changing rapidly over time.
Haydn telling us about traits and decomposition in the tundra
Anne presenting on species and functional diversity change over three decades of tundra monitoring
Sam presented a poster on his undergraduate dissertation about the amount of carbon stored in the above-ground biomass on Qikiqtaruk. And, Mariana presented a poster about the rates of shrub encroachment across two very different biomes that are experiencing similar changes – the tundra and savanna. It was a lively poster session with lots of interesting discussions that continued on over a delicious fish supper in the down of Bridge of Allan.
Sam presenting a poster about his undergraduate dissertation research on carbon storage in the aboveground biomass on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island
Mariana presenting her poster on shrub encroachment in the tundra and savanna biomes
The next day, Isla summarized the evidence for the detection and attribution of tundra vegetation change to climate change including: phenology change, vegetation change, climate sensitivity of shrub growth, a warming of the combined thermal niches of plant communities and community-level plant trait change. Taken together, these data syntheses provide compelling evidence for the detection and attribution of tundra vegetation change to climate warming, but the evidence also points to variability in plant responses and the importance of other controlling factors such as soil moisture, topographic context, herbivory and permafrost thaw. Isla also presented on behalf of Jeff Kerby and shared the initial results of the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network and discussed how drones can help us to understand the ecological context and representativeness of long-term ecological monitoring studies like the ITEX network.
Sandra told us all about her findings that temperatures rather than growing season length best explained variation in shrub growth. Her research also suggests that the interpretation of growth ring data is more complex that we first thought with growth rings likely representing an integration of plant responses to climate and other biological factors from both above and below ground. In the same session, Janet made an impassioned plea for tundra ecologists to make their data public emphasizing the power of open and available data and the resulting data syntheses with a focus on the results of the plant phenology syntheses that she has been leading.
Sandra telling us about how increased growing season length influences shrub growth
Janet Prevéy sharing findings on phenology changes across the tundra biome
And finally, Jakob presented his work on the drivers of tundra phenology changes, looking at snowmelt, temperature and sea-ice. It turns out that snow melt, followed by temperature, best explains variation in plant phenology with localized sea ice not being a significant predictor. Jakob’s excellent talk won best student talk! Congrats Jakob!
The final day of the conference after a Scottish ceilidh dance focused on discussions of what will be next for the ITEX network. What questions should the tundra ecology community tackle in the coming years? How can we integrate new technology into the existing tundra monitoring protocols? What is the future change we can expect to observe in the rapidly warming tundra biome? Stay tuned for the next ITEX conference in a couple of years to find out more about the next stage of tundra ecology research and data synthesis!
The first light was tentatively breaking through the Edinburgh clouds as we braved the early morning and ran towards the train station. Four people, one mission – catch an early morning trend to St Andrews to attend the 2018 Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference! With unexpected delays and ticket machines not working, it was quite the achievement that we did actually make it in time. Team Shrub was at last year’s edition of the conference, which was great fun, so I was excited to take part again this year.
What made this conference extra special for me was that I got to share the experience with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of 4th year undergraduate students from the Ecology and Environmental Sciences programme here in Edinburgh. Struan, Jack and Fiona all took the Conservation Science course last semester and were very keen to learn more! It’s so exciting to share the research journey with students and then get to see them present the findings!
Struan presented his findings on how paths in Cairngorms National Park affect bird diversity – he did a great job at outlining the motivation behind the study, which was a great reminder for us to think about not only what we did, but also why we did it. Something to ponder at each stage of your analysis, from the very first formulation of research questions to writing up the results!
I really enjoyed the SEECC 2018 conference. It was the first science conference I had attended and I found listening to what other people have been researching a very interesting experience, particularly as there was some research which overlapped with my own. My favourite part of the conference was the presentation I did on my dissertation which really gave me a flavour of what presenting your own scientific work is like.
Struan Johnson, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student
It was also my first time sharing some of the preliminary findings of my PhD! Exciting times. A nice coincidence was that the IPBES meetings were happening at the same time, so my post-conference reward for myself was going through the regional summaries for biodiversity change and its drivers.
Gergana presenting some of the preliminary results of her work on forest cover change and biodiversity trends
The IPBES reports were released same time as the conference – an exciting coincidence!
All around the world, forests are lost, forests are gained – what does that mean for biodiversity?
Next up, Jack presented his dissertation project, which investigated the links between wellbeing and environmental threats in Tanzania’s Wildlife Management Areas. Jack was a great speaker on quite the difficult topic!
I thought the conference was very well run, full of interesting and insightful topics and the people presenting were very passionate. It was really nice being able to discuss a wide range of ecological issues with people with in depth knowledge and an encouraging platform for even an undergraduate student to present their work.
Jack Cunningham, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student
I found it a thought-provoking day, and was interesting to hear about the variety of academic research across Scotland. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, with everyone attending (speakers or not) very approachable and eager to talk about current research!
Fiona Stephen, 4th year Ecological and Environmental sciences student
For me, a trip to St Andrews is not complete without ice-cream or fudge donuts… or a combination of the two! We had a great time at the conference and had a very jolly and inspired day full of science!
At the beginning of March, something strange happened here in Edinburgh – a snow storm! A proper blizzard and what very much looked and felt like real snow, real enough to cause a bit of traveling havoc! On my way to Ghent, it was Beast from the East – a standard snow storm really, but quite unusual for for the rainy Edinburgh winter. On my way back to Edinburgh, of course, came Beast from the East number two – a smaller snow storm, but still enough to make the ground go white. Though I had storms accompanying me all along the way, my journeys all went safely and even more excitingly, they were full to the brim with science!
Coding Club is growing! It’s quite exciting, and one of the best parts is learning about similar initiatives around the world – the joys and challenges of coding can definitely bring people together. At the Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent last December, we organised a workshop on sharing quantitative skills among ecologists – seeing so many people keen to only get better at R, but also share their knowledge with others, was definitely one of the conference highlights for me. So imagine how exciting it was when I got the invite to go back to Ghent to lead a Coding Club workshop for EVENET – a network of ecologists from different institutions around Belgium.
Introducing the workshop themes as we’re about to start coding away
Spreading the GitHub love!
The theme of the workshop was developing an efficient and reproducible workflow, so we squeezed in as much data manipulation, visualisation, modelling and then reporting using Markdown into a day-long workshop. If you’re keen to find out about the tidyverse collection of packages and how you can use them to streamline your research, you can check out the tutorial online:
I’ve been dreaming of visiting a research group – it sounded like something I would really enjoy! I love exploring university campuses and research buildings, checking out the posters on the walls, “feeling the science in the air”, learning about new research and getting to hear different perspectives on my work as well. Visiting the Forest and Nature Lab at Ghent University was indeed a great experience – I shared the preliminary findings of one of my PhD chapters for the first time (how does forest cover influence biodiversity trends?), I learned about a lot of cool forest research and of course, I find land-use history fascinating, so I was very intrigued by the post-agricultural forests in Flanders and the effect of time since last agricultural activity.
A particularly inspirational moment was getting to walk around the research forest near Gontrode. A research forest! As much as I like coding away with a cup of tea, it’s nice to complement that with seeing real-life plants and animals. I think strong academic communities are so valuable, and in Ghent, I got a small glimpse of such a community! We are all busy and at any point in time, we could be doing many different things. I will definitely remember the feeling of walking around the research forests with a group of PhD students, each showing me some of their experiments and sharing their science.
Warming chambers in the forest
Signs of spring arrival
I had lots of time for daydreaming on my way back to Edinburgh, and I have to say, 12 hour delays sure feel more poetic when 1) you have code running in the background, so you don’t feel totally inefficient, and 2) you are dreaming of future research directions and field research stations!
On a cold and distant island the stars of our science are sleeping. Buried under a thick winter blanket, Qikiqtaruk in winter is exactly what many people imagine when I say I work in the Arctic: awash with snowdrifts, locked in sea ice, home for polar bears and not a huge amount else.
Yet here on Team Shrub we study plants. Come the summer sun, green tendrils of life emerge from the snow and the hardy, beautiful and fascinating plant life of the tundra begins to grow. Diverse in the manner of tropical rainforests it may not be, but these cold lands are nonetheless brimming with more life than you might think, featuring old favourites that adorn the hills of Scotland to wacky monstrosities that seem to spring out of some primeval past.
In this series we will be exploring some of our favourite species from our most northern field site, starting with our namesake: the shrubs.
What makes a shrub? Such has been the dinnertime conversation at many a Scottish Feast. In short: short. Woody. Multi-stemmed. Sometimes evergreen, sometimes deciduous, always beautiful.
Qikiqtaruk is home to a grand total of nine willow species. Not bad for an isolated Arctic island. The Salix genus dominates much of the upper shin-high canopy, though you can find yourself wading through some of the bigger fellows. Bjorn even reaches chest height. Deciduous, green-leaved, the willows add a certain magic to the tundra as their fluffy seed spirals in the air on a breezy day, while bright red catkins dot the tundra floor underfoot.
Possibly our favourite shrub on the island. This beautiful willow surely lives up to its name: long ruby stems and startling emerald-bright diamond leaves, giving Salix pulchra its common name, diamond-leaf willow. On Qikiqtaruk Salix pulchra grows mostly along the ground in large, clonal mats that creep between tussocks of cottongrass and shelter small white Stellaria flowers. It’s one to watch though, as further south this willow can reach well over head height. Here, where the weather is sheltered and nutrients seep from the permafrost, Salix pulchra grows faster, bigger, redder, standing out from its neighbours atop the palsas, while on the hilltops we have already seen a tripling in its canopy height since we first started recording in 1999.
One of the giants of Qikiqtaruk, Salix richardsonii, or Richardson’s willow, is the most common tall shrub on the island. It grows mostly in wetter, sheltered areas such as river floodplains, where nutrients flow freely and life is as easy as it gets in this bastion of land in the Arctic ocean. Forming a dense, shrubby canopy of bright green leaves, Salix richardsonii nonetheless has a rather grizzled visage, giving it our nickname ‘Old Man Willow’. Twisted branches and flaking orange-brown bark, flecked with white specks of age or hardship. Fat, hairy stipules easily mark it apart from other willows. A canopy bully, Salix richardsonii is now dominating areas where it can grow, rapidly expanding in many parts of the island as the climate warms.
This small willow is a remarkable example of the success and resilience of plants in these cold lands. Salix arctica, the Arctic willow, has the most northernmost geographic range of any woody plant, reaching all the way to the north coast of Greenland at 83 degrees north. A ground-hugging, prostrate woody shrub, it spreads woody limbs akimbo, stretching out in all directions along the top of the permafrost. Thin stems become roots, become stems again and it advances clonally, covering much of the surface until it is impossible to tell where one plant begins and another ends. Even if the main “trunk” is destroyed or decays, the plant will not die: an attempt at immortality. Unlike many of the other dwarf willows, Salix arctica eschews the small leaves and catkins of its fellow family members, and sticks to the strategy of the taller shrubs that bigger is better. Big, fat leaves emerge from the brittle stems, which giant fluffy catkins can strike up from the ground surface several times taller than the rest of the plant. Unusually, on Qikiqtaruk even the leaves and stems of Salix arctica strike upwards for the sky, possibly a hybridisation of one kind or another, and can stretch up even as much as 20cm from the soil.
Just like Salix arctica, this dwarf willow hugs the floor with brittle stems and clonal creeping growth in all directions. The thick, leathery leaves of this plant give it its common name: net-leaved willow, which are criss-crossed and pocked with deep grooves. Once fallen in winter, these hardy leaves last, resisting decomposition and creating a crunching carpet underfoot.
Salix polaris and Salix phlebophylla
The smallest of Qikiqtaruk’s willows, these two species take you down onto hands and knees to appreciate their tiny round leaves and stalk-like stems. Hugging the ground in dense mats, often on the drier sections of hillsides or edges of tussocks, I often have trouble telling these apart from leaves alone. Yet catch them right in the season, and the red catkins of the polar willow (Salix polaris) stand out as one of the brightest flashes of red on the tundra, flecks of delicate colour, blood-rich, that in a matter of days dissolve into white and wind.
Salix glauca and Salix niphoclada
Two of the rarer tall shrubs on Qikiqtaruk, grey willow (Salix glauca) and snow willow (Salix niphoclada) can be a challenge to find, but occasionally stand out on the hillside where some seed has found its way to establishing. The grey-tinged haze of glauca willows sets them apart from the rest, while the sometimes rose-tinged stems and somewhat brighter leaves of niphoclada can cause us headaches when we search for Salix pulchra to sample. These two willows with green leaves covered in fine grey hairs and stems with a blue-green and waxy look to them can be indistinguishable when they have no visible catkins, which is much of the time, so they are often clumped together in our analyses.
Finally, the Goliath of Arctic willows. Salix alaxensis grows tall and often somewhat spindly up on Qikiqtaruk, almost buddleia-like, as if it wants to reach the sun and doesn’t care how it gets there. The leaves are grey-green, but a bright, fluffy white underneath – lannate, densely villous or tomentose if you will. Did you know there are over 20 botanical terms for being hairy! Certainly easy to identify. We have only recently discovered Salix alaxensis, the Alaskan willow, on Qikiqtaruk, though since individuals are already well established, thus it must have been evading detection for many decades.
Betula nana and Betula glandulosa
If you spend much of your time tramping about the high hilltops of Scotland you may already be familiar with dwarf birch. Small, thickety and brittle, the dense brown stems of Betula nana orBetula glandulosa have snagged many a bootlace and tripped many a toe. Still, I love the Betulas for their leaves alone, some of the most perfect forms on the tundra. On Qikiqtaruk, Betula nana holds sway on flatter patches of hilltop; a low growing shrub that announces its presence as a darker green blur on the landscape, or from the waft of crushed Labrador teaunderfoot, which tends to grow alongside birch. Unlike many other tundra sites, where Betula has run rampant as the climate warms, it so far seems to be losing out to the willows here, though in some places the dense, spotted branches form an impenetrable tangle across whole swathes of tundra. As for the difference between nana and glandulosa, the latter is taller, larger leaved, greater noduled. Or not, as the case may be – perhaps they are one species after all, marked apart not by genetics but simply variation.
A hero of the Arctic smellscape, Rhododendron tomentosumis another favourite of ours. The shrub itself is part beautiful: white flowering baubles full of rich scent, rusted felt underside of leaves, and part ugly: the ash-black branches spindly, frail and commonly dead, dark leaves often matted and speckled, a formless shape creeping amongst better rivals. But altogether outstanding are the leaves themselves. Rhododendron tomentosum, marsh Labrador tea, may not quite have the glamour of its more grandiose and much less marshy southern cousin, but its leaves still bear the scent of a thousand tundra days; that unmistakable and uncapturable spice of terpene and midnight chlorophyll. This is a shrub that makes trait work bearable, and often one that prompts a pocket full of leaves for the walk home.
The berry bearers
Arctostaphylos rubra (Arctous rubra)
One for the photo albums. A. rubra, or bearberry, is certainly one of the more iconic tundra shrubs due to its bright, Rudolph-red leaves that can stain the bare tundra at certain times of year. Another prostrate-growing shrub, the ovate, vein-y leaves can bear a resemblance to the leather coins of Salix reticulata when green, though are stretched and less waxy. It is when the winter begins to draw in that Arctostaphylos rubra sets itself apart as the leaves turn, and formerly invisible patches of bearberry shine out. Red too, the berries that hide in amongst the leaves: a food source for humans and wildlife alike, though their diuretic properties also lend themselves to herbal medicines and may explain the preponderance of stained bear poo littering the tundra in autumn. A closely related species, Arctous alpina, looks almost identical except for the red berries that turn black when ripe.
Vaccinium vitis-idea and Vaccinium uliginosum
Another set of plants that will be well known to hillwalkers, the Vaccinium genus is the main fruit bearer for local people and hungry researchers. The smallest, Vaccinium vitis-idea (Ligonberry, cranberry, cowberry – you name it!), carpets the surface with tiny, glossy leaves and even glossier red berries where cover is sparse and soils fairly dry. In places the leaves can turn to a deep, merlot red, or still drip with pink-white cowbell flowers. Harder to find on Qikiqtaruk, Vaccinium uliginosum (blueberry, bilberry etc.) rise higher from the undergrowth where soils are wetter, their berries blue, stems tough brown-green and leaves thinner and more leathery.
Cloudberry, baked apple, or knotberry in England and averin in Scotland is best known on Qikiqtaruk as aqpik. This is one of the most prized of berries in this part of the world and when perfectly ripe is a delicious topping to pancakes, makes an excellent jam or is the perfect snack when stopping across the tundra. Quick to turn from unripe to rotten, finding your patch of cloudberries in season on Qikiqtaruk can be a challenge. It is rare out there, preferring the wetter habitats on the edges of ponds or in ice-wedge terrain.
A heathery-looking dwarf shrub that is equally at home in the Scottish Highlands, on mountaintops around the northern hemisphere, under conifer canopies of the boreal forest, and in vast swathes of tundra. Also a clonal shrub, Empetrum nigrum can form dense mats stretching uninterruptedly for meters, or even tens of meters. Its super-power is allelopathy: the leaves contain toxic chemicals which, when leached into the ground after the rain, hinder germination or growth of other plant species. Fun fact: the wood smells delicious when boiled in water (don’t ask, and probably don’t drink).
The dwarf evergreens
The spear shaped leaves of the mountain avens is to me another iconic shape of the tundra. Whether forming into a sharp coniferous tip, or padded out into the more billowy, deciduous-tree form of Dryas octopetala, these OS map symbols of leaves are unrecognisable wherever they grow. But for many, Dryas integrifolia is best known for its flowers – the perfect white circles that polka-dot the tundra floor – and for the twisted filaments that are the phoenix seedhead, catching the sunrays and diffracting light and themselves across the tundra air.
Growing amongst the rocks and along the dry hillsides, the weeping white bells of Arctic bell heather are another distinctive site at the height of a tundra summer. A relative of the glorious purple heather of the Scottish hills, Cassiope tetragona is similarly small and woody, minute spear-shaped leaves wrapped tight into the stem, forming scaly round limbs. As the season turns, these stems gradually shift from green to orange-brown, giving the tundra an almost burnt look, flowers rusting away to leave the brittle seed heads proud to the wind.
Bonus: The uncategorised
If you’ve reached this far, well done for getting to the end. As a special bonus, I’ve included Silene acaulis, better known as moss campion. There is some confusion here as to whether Silene acaulis is best classed as a shrub or a forb. Silene as a genus refers to the campions, delicate flowers of field and rocks, all pink and white and herbaceous green leaves. Yet the harsher climates to which Silene acaulis has adapted produces a hardy, cushion-like shrub, past leaves compressed into woody stems. For myself, I class this bright plant as a forb, yet since I have seen it classed otherwise so under some schemes, it is worth a brief mention here.
Beyond confusion of classification, Silene acaulis is by no means one to be relegated to the bottom of any list. It grows where often nothing else will, building a bivouac out of its own sharp leaves against the elements. Within this thick shell, the plant can grow to engulf surrounding rocks occasionally supporting other tiny plants as they grow through chinks in its armour. Most spectacular are the pink-purple flowers, which at the height of the summer dot these minuscule mountains like dewdrops, or like pins in a pin-cushion. Silene acaulis is rare on Qikiqtaruk – the soft, undulating landscape means there are few surfaces too harsh for competitors. But I have seen one once, in passing, making a mental note to come back to sample it later. I have never found one since.
We love big bold questions. Synthesising data over large spatial and temporal scales and bringing together information from different sources to support our findings. Along the way, we have our trusty SuperShrub (our mini-supercomputer), but there are some things even SuperShrub can’t handle, or can’t do in the most efficient way. So how can one extract NDVI, land cover, climate data and more over thousands and thousands of kilometers and across many, many days, months and years? Why with the Google Earth Engine!
The Earth Engine is fast. Very fast!
Gergana: Being able to quickly access and extract land use information for thousands of locations around the world is a key part of my PhD research on the drivers of biodiversity change. I had heard the Earth Engine is fast, and I knew that one of the datasets I am working with, the Hansen et al. Forest Cover Database, is accessible through the engine, but I am also stubborn and I love R! So many a day were spent trying to push R and SuperShrub to their limits… and well, the code never finished running, as I stopped it after a week of waiting! That is why I was pretty excited to see the Hansen database mentioned in the presentation prior to the workshop, and I couldn’t wait to try extracting information. I adapted some of the code we learned in the workshop and a bit of code I found online, and what do you know, 42 seconds (only 42 seconds!) later, I had a csv with thousands of rows specifying the forest loss and gain in 2001-2014 for the areas I was interested in. Amazing!
The Earth Engine is flexible!
Isla: In a one-day workshop, we covered a lot of ground – from pixel classification, spectral unmixing to phenology analyses. We had a chance to explore the greening of our focal field site Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island all the way up to the greening of the Arctic! We knew that the Earth Engine was a powerful platform, as some of us had dabbled before, but it is great to finally get a better understanding of what the possibilities are. The Earth Engine could be a game changer for earth observation. Below you can see MODIS NDVI trends for our focal research site all the way up to the Western Arctic at 1 km resolution, all calculated in under 10 minutes. You can see pixels with active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping getting browner and the less disturbed tundra vegetation getting greener at the local scale and the patterns of greening and browning in the Western Arctic region.
Taking time out of our usual routine to learn new things is important.
Team Shrub recently met to discuss our New Year’s resolutions, and one of our general life goals – “to keep learning new things” – was pretty high up on that list. It’s not always easy to make time for new things in our busy lives, but sometimes it is just something that you have to make happen. Even if it involves taking many trains and feeling motion sick on every single one! As much as we love coordinating Coding Club and teaching students quantitative skills at the University of Edinburgh, it’s also nice to be the one being trained and getting to attend a coding workshop from time to time!
So, for Team Shrub, harnessing the power of the Earth Engine might 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. And now that the training is over, we can’t wait do dig in deeper and explore our earth observation research questions in a whole new way.
Being a field assistant for the first time isn’t always easy. Following on from Izzy’s recent post, here are five more great tips from Cameron on how to be an awesome field assistant (and to have an awesome time).
1. Apply for funding
Being a field assistant costs money. In many cases you might be employed by an organisation, research group or researcher to carry out the role, in which case they will be covering your costs. However, you may be required to (or want to) provide funds yourself. But don’t fret! There are plenty of funding opportunities hidden out there for the proactive field assistant to find. Most funding requires you to submit a proposal outlining what you will be working on and how much you think it will cost. Once you have drawn up a proposal for one funding application it is easy to tailor it for others. Keep an eye on the submission deadlines and apply to as many funds as possible. In my experience, funds for undergraduates aren’t very competitive, so make use of them!
Information for funds available for University of Edinburgh Students can be found here.
2. Take good equipment
When you are setting up experiments in a snowstorm, or climbing mountains before breakfast, you quickly learn to appreciate the value of good equipment. However, if you haven’t been in the field before it can be hard to figure out what sort of stuff to bring with you. For me, the most important bits of kit are good waterproofs, a decent backpack, and an excellent pair of walking boots (we had a pair fall apart this summer). If you are going to spend a lot of time in the field you should treat yourself to some nice gear. It’s totally worth the investment and good quality stuff can really improve your comfort and safety. Why not add the cost of a beautiful jacket and boots into your funding application (for health and safety reasons, of course)?
Just another summer’s day in the tundra
How to mend a broken sole
3. Ask lots of questions
“Why are we digging up old tea bags from the ground and what’s the deal with all of these dead leaves?”
Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from the people you are working with. Asking questions and figuring out why you are doing a task can really help you get more out of your time in the field and cement knowledge learned in the classroom. You will also likely be working with people further on in their career than you. If you are thinking about a career in academia, take this chance to pick their brains about all aspects of academic life.
4. Take the bad with the good
Hopefully you will experience many great things during your time as a field assistant but you might also experience some pretty bad lows. The work can be gruelling and the days long. A healthy mentality is key to enduring the bad moments and enjoying the good. Make sure to talk to your team if you are having difficulties, and look after yourself. It really is worth it at the end.
5. Let yourself be enchanted…
Fieldwork can take you to some truly special locations. We get to explore hidden valleys, shadowy forests, and secret little places far from any path. Please take some time, in-between sampling and recording data, to fully appreciate the wonderful environment and people around you. Not only does this add to your overall experience, it can also turn you into a passionate advocate for these incredible areas. Tell the stories of these places anyway you can, be it on Facebook, in prose, or down the pub. The more people know about your field site, the less likely it will fade into obscurity and be lost.