Blowing in the wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, photos by Gergana Daskalova

Why Arctic?

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

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

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

Why the Arctic?

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

Because life happens fast here. And it has to.

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

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

More answers to Why Arctic to come!

Words and photos by Jeff Kerby

What does it mean to be an explorer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words by Isla Myers-Smith

The tundra up close

It is the first week of July and the tundra has lit up in colour. Shades of pink, blue, yellow and white mix in to create a vibrant tundra landscape. This is the time when the diversity of plants on Qikiqtaruk is most striking. Many tundra plants are small in stature and only bloom for a short period of time. For most of the year, this diversity remains hidden, but now, it fills up the tundra with showy flowers and floral scents. Zooming in on this arctic landscape further reveals many species, each with its own adaptations for life at high latitudes.

The tundra is brimming with flowers, like lupines, avens, willows and more. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A quick pace of life

In the tundra, time often appears to stand still with the never setting sun. Especially on calm evenings with perfect sunset reflections in the water, or foggy days when the island is enshrouded in white cloud. But behind this apparent stillness, a quickly paced life for plants takes place. Here, plants have only a few weeks to bloom and disperse their seeds. Though it seems like the flowers have only just appeared, if we look closely, we can already see seeds that the Arctic winds will soon carry across the tundra.

Against the midnight sun, the petals of this lousewort flower become translucent, revealing the seeds that will soon be dispersed across the tundra. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Flurry of life

When July arrives, it is as if the whole tundra, from the plants to the wildlife, is swept into a flurry of life. Buzzing invertebrates and gusty winds spread pollen from flower to flower across the landscape. The flight of an Arctic bumblebee is perhaps the loudest bee buzz I have ever heard when it gets close. In this high-paced life, all leads up to peak biomass, the time of the year when the tundra will be the greenest and most bountiful it will be all year.

The arctic poppy, with its electric yellow petals, stands out from afar, making it a popular stop for the insects flying across these landscapes. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Peak biomass

Peak biomass is the pinnacle of a summer in the Arctic. Not just for the plants and wildlife, but also for scientists. In the days surrounding peak biomass, I will once again pick up a 1×1 m plot, up to a 100 metal pin flags, long measuring tapes and more. With the equipment in tow, I will survey the diversity of plant life on Qikiqtaruk and mark the exact locations of where tundra biodiversity hides. Revealing the diversity of these arctic plant communities and how it relates to microclimates across the landscape can help us predict how ongoing and future climate change will alter life here on Qikiqtaruk and around the Arctic. So us scientists will pick up our pace as well, dashing across the tundra, perhaps not as quickly as a bumblebee, but with similar determination.

In the tundra, peak biomass marks the time of year when the landscape is the greenest and plant life is most bountiful. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

And then the tundra will become quiet again. From peak biomass onwards, life here slows down, in time for the oncoming winter. Bumblebees will retreat to the soil; willows will shed their last leaf and the tundra will slow down to a browner quiet in preparation for the dark months ahead. In around 10 months, spring will return and the cycle will begin again.

Words by Gergana Daskalova

All about the gear

A field expedition is part science, part logistics, part adventures, but it is also all about the gear. We wouldn’t be able to collect the data we need without a fair bit equipment. With all of our gear in toe we can now focus on capturing Arctic greening and hidden biodiversity.

In case you are interested, we thought we could run through some of the kit we are bringing with us this year.

The Drones

To build 3D models of tundra landscapes, we will be using Phantom 4 multicopter drones by DJI. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
For precision drone mapping, we will use the DJI Phantom 4 RTK drone system. Here’s hoping we don’t get logged out without regular internet access! Photo by Malkolm Boothroyd.
To capture tundra greenness across the landscape, we will use Parrot Disco Pro Ag drones with the Sequoia multispectral sensor. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
For large-scale RGB work we have also brought along our home-built Zeta FX-61 Phantom fixed wing drones. Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.
To capture our tundra field site using video and photography from the air, we will use a DJI Mavic 2 Pro. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

The camera kit

For photography, Gergana will be shooting with a Canon 7D Mark II camera. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To see up close, far away and from a wide angle, Gergana will shoot with Canon lenses including the 100mm f2.8 USM Macro, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II and 16-35mm f4, and a Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To capture movement of water and clouds, Gergana will take long exposure shots with Lee filters. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To keep her camera steady, Gergana will use a Manfrotto befree Live tripod. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.
To capture the tundra in 360 degrees and to shot above and below the water surface we have brought along two GoPro Fusions. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

We also have Nikon, Sony and other cameras along for the summer too. You can never have too many cameras!

The recording kit

To record the sounds of the Arctic, we will use Zoom H4n Pro recorders and a Røde VideoMic Pro. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

The knee brace

To make it out to our field sites across the rugged tundra, Isla will benefit from knee support by an Ossur knee brace provided by Kintec Vancouver and all of her physio from Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre! Thanks Kelli and Trixie! Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Thanks to National Geographic Society and the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK Arctic Office for supporting this field expedition. Thanks to National Geographic Society for an equipment loan of camera lenses, a GoPro Fusion, sound recorder and video camera. Thanks to Malkolm Boothroyd for providing us with a remote camera trigger, when we forgot to bring one ourselves! And thanks to our technical support team including Iain Myers-Smith, Mariana García Criado and Cameron Eckert who have been messaging via our InReach to help us overcome our technical and logistical challenges thus far!

So that gives you an idea of some of the kit we are bringing with us. It is always an adventure to try to pack all the right gear, figure out how your equipment works and particularly whether it will work without internet! Almost a week into our field season, and so far the gear has been serving us well. Here’s to a summer with as few technical challenges as possible – to keep the content rolling in.

Words by Isla Myers-Smith

New beginnings

Team Shrub has arrived on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic. Our Greening Arctic expedition has begun. We’re here to capture how the tundra plants of this permafrost-underlain landscape are responding as the Arctic warms.

The first sight of Qikiqtaruk from our Twin Otter flight to the island. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
Mud cliffs eroding into turquoise waters – a relic of the last ice age and an island under constant change with belugas swimming by. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

The start of an expedition is that moment when you step off of the plane and your boots hit the ground. It is a lot of work to prepare for a field season and it is only once you arrive that the excitement really sinks in. As my “city” running shoes hit the ground on the sandy beach strip of Qikiqtaruk, it hits me. We’re finally here.

The plane has landed on the beach strip. We have finally arrived and are about set foot on the ground at our Arctic field site Qikiqtaruk – home for the next 40 days. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

First impressions

Qikiqtaruk has changed since I was last here a year ago. The air strip is closer to the beach, the buildings are closer to the waves, the permafrost thaw slumps in the distance have transformed their shapes. And yet in other ways this place is unchanged, timeless. After the hours and days it takes to adjust, it starts to feel like I have never left. We are back to the routines of living on the island. The running shoes and jeans are packed and our insulated rubber boots and down jackets are on. We’re ready to get to work.

Setting off across the tundra with backpacks full of equipment to survey tundra greenness across the landscape as it changes over the season. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Drones in the air

After four days, plant and permafrost data collection is under way, drones are in the air and the NASA plane has already surveyed the island as a part of the NASA Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment Project. The task has begun to capture island-scale greenness and uncover the drivers of vegetation change across these tundra landscapes and over time. So far our fieldwork has gone according to plan, but Arctic fieldwork can always have surprises in store. What will tomorrow bring?

The launch. Fixed-wing drones take to the skies to capture the greenness of these greening tundra landscapes. These data will be compared with data from satellites and the NASA plane as a part of the ABoVE project to figure out what information is missing in coarse-resolution data. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Winds of change

As I write this, the winds outside our building are shifting from the East winds of the past few days to the North. From mirror still seas to a chop on the water – feels like a change of weather might be on the way. Will we keep plan with our field schedule or will the Arctic weather will dictate where and when we next go out to collect data? If the weather turns, there is plenty of planning and preparation to do for the field season ahead. But, we’ll be impatiently waiting for the weather to clear again.

Still waters before the storm on the 9th of July on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic – the location of the Greening Arctic Expedition. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

I will sign off here under the midnight sun as the blue skies shift towards a steely grey. Time to call an end to my day here in anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.

Words by Isla Myers-Smith

Northwards

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been gradually going further and further north. From Sofia, to Edinburgh, to Vancouver, to Whitehorse, to Kluane, to Inuvik and now finally we have arrived on Qikiqtaruk – a journey of thousands of kilometres from my European home to 70 degrees north in the Canadian Arctic. I jumped off the final charter flight to the sands of the beach airstrip on Qikiqtaruk on the 5th July. Almost two weeks have passed since I packed my first bag in Edinburgh. Along the way, I accumulated many more bags and at each stop, the tundra felt closer and closer. Familiar faces, characteristic plants, challenges I’ve learned to anticipate and others I didn’t see coming. Now, I am looking out the window to the Arctic ocean. I am finally here. Here are some of the key tell-tell signs of a journey northwards.

A blooming tundra

Along the highways of the Southern Yukon, you can see the same plants that you can find 1000 km to the north in the Arctic tundra. Tundra plants are rarely the most obvious of plants. With their low stature to avoid the high winds, they are often small and easily thought to be all the same. But come June and July, there is no mistake – the tundra is more diverse than one might expect. For a brief period in the summer, a blooming tundra with flowers in all colours of the rainbow lights up the landscape. A great time to capture the biodiversity of the Arctic that might be overlooked in other seasons or when surveying only very small areas.

As we made our way further and further up north, we saw more of the tundra’s plants. We would soon see them again, but beyond the Arctic circle. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Northern wildlife

A thousand kilometres south of Qikiqtaruk, along the shores of Kluane Lake, we could feel the tundra not just from the plants, but also from the wildlife. Here, herbivores like ground squirrels, voles and lemmings play a key role in ecosystems. By limiting the growth and spread of a handful of dominant plant species, herbivores indirectly create space for other, rarer, species to establish and persist as well, making for a more diverse tundra.

A young ground squirrel dashes among the grass tussocks munching on juicy new shoots. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A constant buzz in the air

The soundscape of the Arctic always includes a certain kind of buzz. A buzz that gets louder and louder the more north you go (and the closer you are to wet and marshy areas). Mosquitos are a big part of any journey north – constant companions that you sometimes don’t notice, other times they drive you mad.

Swarms of mosquitos buzz around in the air, sometimes straight into spider webs. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A mix of hectic preparations and tranquillity

An arctic expedition takes a lot of planning and preparation. And it’s all done under the looming knowledge that whatever we forget to bring, we will have to do without. Whatever we don’t manage to get done in time, we might not be able to do once we are in the field away from towns, stores and the internet. Packing more and more boxes doesn’t quite seem to shake away the feeling of something escaping your mind. But after the hectic preparations, comes a sense of acceptance. I am here on Qikiqtaruk and I have what I have. There will surely be things I haven’t thought of, but until then, a wide diversity of tundra plants awaits to be discovered, and I can’t wait to begin the exploration.

Words by Gergana Daskalova

A tranquil sunset just before we began the final leg of our journey northwards. On Qikiqtaruk, I will be combining surveys from the ground and the sky to capture the diversity of plants in the Arctic that we might otherwise overlook using traditional small-scale monitoring. Photo by Malkolm Boothroyd.

The science behind The Hidden Arctic Project

The planet is changing at an increasingly high pace, with the consequences of climate change reaching far across the Earth’s biomes. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the Arctic tundra, which is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Our project will contribute to precisely quantifying ongoing and future biodiversity change across these unique yet threatened northern landscapes.

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Our project will capture how plant biodiversity in the Arctic is changing in a warmer climate – shifts that might then echo through the whole ecosystem. Infographic by Gergana Daskalova.

A long-term perspective on Arctic change

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Year after year, scientists return to the same plots to capture temporal shifts in plant communities across the tundra. Photo by Mariana García Criado & Gergana Daskalova.

A pin drops in the tundra. And then 11,999 more pin drops follow. Metal pins like this one are one of our key tools in monitoring the changes in plant communities on Qikiqtaruk. By recording the types of plants the pin touches every time we drop it, we can get insights into the number and types of species found from one year to the next.

Biodiversity change beyond the plots

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Extensive surveys from the ground and the sky help us discover the tundra’s hidden diversity – soon the tundra will light up with orange flags, each one marking the precise location of a plant species. Photo by Kayla Arey.

With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. To understand these shifts in tundra ecosystems, we need to look beyond the plots and capture the landscape context of biodiversity change – all the species lurking just outside of the plots and the types of habitats (for example, warmer or cooler, wetter or drier) they are most often found in. This so-called “dark biodiversity” can be the hidden source of future biodiversity change in the Arctic that might then go on to influence how the entire ecosystem functions.

Links across scales

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We will record the precise location of the first individual of each new plant species we find – these locations will then be the link between our ground and aerial surveys, and between the plot-scale and landscape-scale biodiversity change. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

We will combine plant and drone surveys to capture two complementary perspectives on biodiversity change in the tundra – the types of species that occur across these shifting landscapes, and the microhabitats they occupy. By linking ground and aerial observations, we will be able to discover the explicit hotspots of biodiversity across different types of topography and microclimate, and quantify if the rates of biodiversity change are intensifying with rising temperatures.

Stay tuned as we pack our pin flags (and many other boxes of equipment) and head north to begin our search for the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity.

By Gergana Daskalova

The science behind our journey

The Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the globe and has already warmed by two degrees Celsius (nearly four degrees Fahrenheit) in the last half century. This warming is melting sea ice, thawing permafrost – permanently frozen ground – and changing the tundra environment. And as the tundra warms, plants are responding.

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Pondering permafrost and Arctic greening on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

In recent decades, scientists and people living around the Arctic have started to notice a much broader transformation and from space, the Arctic now appears much greener than it used to be. Making sense of how rapidly the tundra is changing is critical for understanding global climate change for the planet as a whole.

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This is what vegetation change can look like – increases in shrubs. Photos by Team Shrub.

While we are certain that the Arctic is changing, the scientific findings to date are also full of contradictions. For instance, not all satellites seem to agree on which areas are greening. In some places, satellites suggest big landscape changes, but they aren’t obvious on the ground – and vice versa. But satellite pixels can be as large as nearly 10,000 soccer fields and long-term monitoring plots can be as small as 1 x 1 m or the size of the surface of a card table. This is a massive scale gap!

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Drones are providing new tools to monitor changing Arctic landscapes. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

 

Is our understanding of Arctic change hampered by the fact that we aren’t collecting data at the most useful scales to connect the dots between warming and plant responses? Drones will allow us to bridge this gap to disentangle how tundra ecosystems are responding to climate warming across these frozen landscapes.

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Tundra ecosystems are surprisingly diverse given the only two-month long summer. Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. Scientists have been monitoring plots across the landscape for over two decades to track the rate of this biodiversity change.

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Meter-squared plots are how vegetation change has previously been monitored across the Arctic. Photo by Mariana García Criado and Gergana Daskalova.

But what about the species found outside of plots? How many species have escaped the notice of scientists over time – the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity? Will uncovering this so called “dark diversity” influence our estimates of how tundra biodiversity will change in the future?

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Team Shrub pictured here in 2018 is heading back to the Arctic this summer. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Team Shrub has been working for over 10 years to figure out how high latitude ecosystems are responding to the rapidly warming climate. In the summer of 2019, we’re heading back to the Yukon Arctic Coast and Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island to study the rapidly changing Arctic. This year’s team is made up of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Purdue University. Our research will identify the hotspots of change across the landscape that satellite and long-term yet small-scale observations might be missing.

Let the science and the adventures begin!

By Isla Myers-Smith