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

The field season is coming!

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!

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.

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:

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.

Species Pool Protocol

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!

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.

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.

By Isla, Gergana, Mariana, Noah

Keeping up with biomes

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!

By Mariana

Arctic Above – A Team Shrub Photography Exhibition

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.

Arctic Above – online photography exhibition

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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.

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!

By Gergana

The International Tundra Experiment Meeting 2018

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!

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.

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?

Our group photo from the top of the hill

Next up it was time for some science.  Here is a brief summary of the team shrub presentations at the conference.

Species Pool Protocol

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.

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.

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.

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!

By Gergana and Isla

Conference adventures – the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference 2018

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!

Struan presenting his honours research on the effects of paths on bird diversity in the Cairngorms

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.

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!

Jack presenting the findings of his honours dissertation on how wildlife management areas influence human well-being

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

Post-conference waffles and ice cream – a great ending to a jam-packed day of science!

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!

By Gergana, Struan, Jack and Fiona

Coding Club in Ghent and a visit to the Forest and Nature Lab in Ghent

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!

Edinburgh snowscapes

Coding Club workshop for the EVENET network

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.

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:

GitHub, Tidyverse and Markdown – efficient data manipulation and visualisation and reproducible workflows

Red deer populations across space and time – check out the tutorial here https://ourcodingclub.github.io/2018/03/06/tidyverse.html

The Forest and Nature Lab at Ghent University

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.

You can check out some of the papers below to learn more about the effects of land-use legacy on forest communities:

Hermy & Verheyen (2007) Legacies of the past in the present-day forest biodiversity: a review of past land-use effects on forest plant species composition and diversity, Ecological Research.

Perring et al. (2018) Global environmental change effects on plant community composition trajectories depend upon management legacies, Global Change Biology.

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.

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!

By Gergana

The Plants of Qikiqtaruk. Part 1: The Shrubs

On a cold and distant island the stars of our science are sleepingBuried 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.

Qiqiktaruk in winter

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.

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.

The willows

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.

Salix pulchra

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.

Salix pulchra leaves catching the sunlight. The beautiful willow is a Western Arctic specialist found across tussock tundra and mountain landscapes of the Yukon and Alaska.

Salix richardsonii

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.

Encroaching Salix richardsoni is taking over the Ice Creek watershed on Qikiqtaruk. This is one of the tallest willows on the island and elsewhere in the Arctic where in can dominate tundra landscapes with dense, metres tall and sometimes impenetrable thickets of willows.

Salix arctica

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.

Salix arctica the Arctic willow with flowers blooming in spring. This is one of the most widely distributed plants across the tundra biome found from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the very tip of Greenland.

Salix reticulata

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.

The waxy leaves of the net-leaved willow, Salix reticulata. Like with Salix arctica, this is a very widely distributed willow found in much of the Arctic, the Alps and even in Scotland!

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.

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The bright red catkins, fluffy white seeds and verdant green leaves of Salix polaris often remind Isla of the colours of Christmas!
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The tiny 2 – 4 mm long leaves of Salix phlebophylla covering the ground in a mat. Named for the skeleton leaves it ‘leaves’ behind year after year, this is one of the smallest willows in the world!

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.

Salix glauca
Less majestic than Salix glauca in other parts of the Arctic, here on Qikiqtaruk this willow can only eek out an existence in the warmest microclimates of south-facing slopes.

Salix alaxensis

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.

Isla with a particularly tall Salix alaxensis found on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2016 on a particularly buggy walk back from the retrogressive thaw slumps along the coast.

The birches

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 or Betula 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 tea underfoot, 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 very dwarf birch, Betula nana/glandulosa – is it one species or two? – nestled amongst compatriots including Rhododendron tomentosum and Vaccinium vitis-idea (see below).

Tundra tea

Rhododendron tomentosum

A hero of the Arctic smellscape, Rhododendron tomentosum is 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.


We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), Ledum (its old name), I got to get some!

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.

The bright red leaves of Arctostaphylos rubra in the autumn intermixed with some Vaccinium uliginosum.
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Arctous alpina the black berries of alpine or ‘black’ bearberry.

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.

Vaccinium vitis-idaea (and Empetrum nigrum). These Arctic cranberries make a delicious pie and jam if you have the patience to pick enough!

Rubus chamaemorus

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.

The delicate salmon pink berries of ripe aqpik or cloudberry.

Empetrum nigrum

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).

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The bright leaves and black berries of Empetrum nigrum

The dwarf evergreens

Dryas integrifolia

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.

The bright white flowers of Dryas integrifolia.
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Twisting filaments of Dryas integrifolia as the flowers set seed at the end of the summer.

Cassiope tetragona

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.

Cassiope tetragona with four flower heads as per it’s name is one of the longest lived of tundra shrubs, with individuals being found that can be dated back to over 200 years.

Bonus: The uncategorised

Silene acaulis

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.

The resilient and secretive Silene acaulis

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.

A rare find for Qikiqtaruk, a bit of Silene acaulis, spotted by Isla in the summer of 2017.

By Haydn, Sandra and Isla