Meet Team Shrub: Kayla

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Team member Kayla Arey. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

My name is Kayla (Nanmak) Arey. I am Inuvialuit from Aklavik Northwest Territories. I am also a scientist, with a degree in Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences. Arctic research and engagement of traditional knowledge are essential for stakeholders to make informed decisions regarding the management of Arctic ecosystems. This is so important to me because the Arctic is more than landscapes and animals, it is my home, and my community.

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Kayla on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2018. Photo by Cameron Eckert.

By Kayla Arey

Meet Team Shrub: Noah

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Returning from a successful drone flight after a smooth landing in the surrounding cottongrass. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

I’m Noah Bell, a member of Team Shrub for the past year, and I am passionate about drones and climate science.

Where I grew up, in Washington, DC, it is illegal to fly drones anywhere in the city, so I had to travel well outside the beltway to practice. I studied civil engineering at the University of Vermont (UVM) and worked at the school’s Spatial Analysis Lab, an applied research facility that uses geospatial technology to assess a wide variety of environmental and human resource needs. While earning my engineering degree, my research lab experience exposed me to imaging projects that included emergency planning for developing nations and using drones to map invasive species, inundation areas, and riverbank erosion. During my third year, I became a certified drone pilot and was sent to fly mapping missions in such exotic locations around the US as Lake Tahoe, Hawaii, and the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Noah flying drones
When you’re not in the Arctic, it can be tricky to find places to fly drones.

Last summer after graduating from UVM, I joined Team Shrub as the drone pilot for the climate-vegetation research team heading to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. There, I fulfilled my dream of being able to fly a drone anywhere I wanted, so long as the weather, winds, mosquitoes and wildlife cooperated. But it was on the ground, working with the amazing biologists and ecologists during their annual study of the island, that was the most rewarding experience. The summer was extremely rich in new perspectives while learning about climate impacts on Arctic ecosystems from the researchers themselves.

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Flight planning on the tundra. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

I have recently moved back to Washington, DC to work at a local engineering firm where I hope to get authorization to use drones to monitor the health of green roofs used to store stormwater and keep the city’s rivers clean from sewage runoff. But part of me wants to be back where, once you’ve got permits and certificates approved by the Canadian government, the only authority needed to carry out drone research is nature itself.

By Noah Bell

Meet Team Shrub: Mariana

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Me happily carrying a Global Navigation Satellite System around the tundra. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

My name is Mariana and I have been part of Team Shrub for almost two years now. I am currently working on my PhD, which focuses on understanding plant species responses to climate change in biomes found at extreme climatic and seasonality conditions, with a particular focus in the tundra.

I have always been drawn to remote and exotic places. Being born and raised in the gentle Mediterranean climate of southwestern Spain, “exotic” did not only mean tropical latitudes, but also the northernmost Arctic ecosystems. I recall developing a long-term fascination with the tundra after my Geobotany professor at University explained that the word ‘tundra’ derives from Finnish ‘tunturia’, meaning a treeless plain. I remember thinking just how poetic and appealing that sounded – even though, ironically, I have always loved trees.

That promise of such different and sometimes dramatic environments, shaped by centuries of cold temperatures driving geological and ecological processes, took me traveling to the north of Europe over the years. I visited Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, and was entranced by what I found there. In Iceland, some landscapes resemble moonscapes and are truly otherworldly. In Fennoscandia, the transition of boreal forest into tundra forms a very interesting ecotone. But all these landscapes have something in common. Life above the Arctic Circle has a special light, and a different rhythm.

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One of the most spectacular midnight suns we saw in Qikiqtaruk, around 2am. Photo by Mariana García Criado.

Developing a PhD project with Team Shrub made me realise that I did not only have to settle with admiring the tundra biome – I could also understand it. This search for answers took me to the Canadian Arctic in the summer of 2018 as part of the field crew to collect data on tundra greening. I remember the moment the plane left us on the strip of sand that acts as an airport runway in Qikiqtaruk. We watched the Twin Otter take off and disappear towards the mainland, and I remember thinking I had never felt so far away from everything.

But after a month in the island I felt fully at home in Qikiqtaruk, and no longer far from anything else. The fieldwork, the wildlife sightings, the exuberant midnight sun, the collaboration with researchers and the Inuvialuit people, and the new friends made along the way are experiences that I will always treasure. All the memories from last summer still feel very close to my heart and I really hope to return to Qikiqtaruk one day. A piece of myself was definitely left there among the polar bears, the ice sheets, and of course – the shrubs.

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Cottongrass in Qikiqtaruk, with a view of the thawing permafrost in the slumps in the distance. Photo by Mariana García Criado.

By Mariana García Criado

Meet Team Shrub: Gergana

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Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

I’m Gergana Daskalova and my motivation for exploring the Arctic stems from my love for heading off into the unknown in search of new discoveries and being part of a larger community with a common mission.

These two passions of mine have been common threads throughout my life, and on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic, they come together. I didn’t expect to ever see the Arctic with my own eyes, yet now it feels natural to be eagerly awaiting my third summer in the tundra. I am one to first go to a place chasing the unknown and then return pulled by an urge to contribute to a vision and understanding extending beyond just me. This crossroad between individual drive and common aims, between international explorations and a sense of belonging has been at the base of many of my decisions in life. This is the crossroad that ultimately led me to the Arctic.

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Roads like this one in the Bulgarian village Tyurkmen have played a big role in people’s lives for many generations. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Though there have been many crossroads, my journey started with the simplest of roads – a dusty dirt road in the Bulgarian village Tyurkmen. I am from probably one of the last generations in Bulgaria to have grown up running around village roads like this one. If you’re ever looking for someone here, chances are they are either in their garden, or “on the road”. Village roads are where grandparents wait for their children to return, where gossip flies fast as dust in the wind, where cow bells mark the beginning and end of each day. As a child, I rushed to the road every morning as soon as I heard the bells and watched first the cows, then the sheep and goats, and finally the buffalos head to pasture. We would play all day on the road until the buffalos returned as the sun was setting.

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The last tomato harvest before the autumn frosts combines tones much alike those of traditional Bulgarian attire. Photos: Harvest (Gergana Daskalova) and portrait (Galina Daskalova).

Village roads are where many people, me included, first saw the world beyond their own homes. I grew up running between the garden and the road. Perhaps that’s what made me a quick runner – I was always dashing across wanting to see and experience life both in the garden and beyond. I loved hanging around my grandparents – we made endless jars of peach compote, turned pig fat into soap and seemed to always be watering the garden. I dedicated many hours to mastering the art of telling when a watermelon is perfectly ripe. But I was also always lured by the road, the far away neighborhoods (them being a whole half an hour walk away!), the dam and the fields. I grew up, and so did my world. Now it stretches way beyond the furthest field I dared explore as a child. I have found my passion and chased it all around the planet – from the wet and windy hills of Scotland to the hot red dust of the of Australian outback and now north to the Arctic. My world is much bigger now, but I am still very much split between the pull of home and the pull of the unknown.

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Behind this basement door, tens of jars of pickles and compote remain unopened. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

First people wondered how I could ever leave my garden. I was picking tomatoes and making tomato sauce till the very last day before my flight to Edinburgh where I would start my undergraduate degree in ecology and environmental science later the same week. I became one of the many villagers who hide away their gardening hoes, lock whatever doors can be locked and walk off into the distance. Then people wondered why I keep coming back. It is unusual for someone from a village like mine to go to places like Australia and the Arctic. What’s even more unusual, however, is for them to then come back to the village. Some of my gardening hoes were stolen the first year I left the village. My neighbor remarked: “well, you can’t blame whoever stole them, nobody thought you’d ever come back to use them again”.

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Once the roofs fall, rain begins to wash away the sod from the walls and soon only a pile of stones remain to mark what was once somebody’s home. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

There isn’t anyone waiting by the road for me in the village anymore, the generations have turned and now I’m the one trying to preserve the traditions, home and garden I grew up with. Most of the houses on my road are empty and many say my village is on the way to becoming one of Bulgaria’s many ghost villages. Places ruled by memories, hidden or lost stories and a once jubilant past that may never come again. But I still see life in my village – different life to the life around me when I grew up, but life worth coming back for, nonetheless.

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“Katmi” – the Bulgarian version of pancakes – are traditionally made over a fire, with the fire lit at the crack of dawn, so that the stone heats up enough. Once I use to wake up to the smell of katmi, now I wake up early to start the fire. Photo by Yovina Daskalova.

Villages are changing and this new epoch for rural areas can impact cultures, ecosystems and biodiversity. But if nobody is there to see it, if nobody returns, then we will never know what these new types of villages might mean for life around us. Similarly, the Arctic is changing, and it is not enough to just go to the Arctic once to capture how climate warming is altering life across northern latitudes. We need a long-term perspective – the kind of perspective you gain by returning, listening and working with the people for whom the Arctic is a long-term home. I am learning to embrace my age-old dilemma, to use it as the fuel for my motivation in my research, but also in my life. I love going to new places, but I also love returning to the places that I’ve already been to foster a much deeper connection and understanding over time.

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Though monotonic at a first glance, tundra landscapes support a surprising diversity of plants. Photos: Landscape (Gergana Daskalova) and portrait (Sandra Angers-Blondin).

I don’t remember ever thinking about the Arctic, or shrubs growing up. My interests in plants were mostly utilitarian – jams, compotes, pickles, stakes for the cucumbers that would turn into pickles. And yet, here I am today, with my mind literally spiralling like our tundra protocols do to capture hidden biodiversity. A surprising diversity of tundra plants lurks across these landscapes, and I am eagerly awaiting our return to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island.

For the Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity project, I will be teaming up with Yukon Parks rangers and scientists from the Arctic (check out Kayla Arey’s bio just above this post) and beyond (read more about Team Shrub and about Isla Myers-Smith here). We will combine extensive ground surveys of Qikiqtaruk’s flora with aerial monitoring using drones. Our goal is to capture the tundra’s dark diversity – the species that lurk across the landscape yet have never been recorded inside small-scale monitoring plots. These elusive species might be the ones that shape the arctic ecosystems of the future, and I am so excited to return to Qikiqtaruk and work together with the community of people on the island to shed light on the tundra’s dark diversity.

#HiddenArctic

@gndaskalova @TeamShrub

For tales in Bulgarian, check out Градината на слънцето.

Meet Team Shrub: Isla

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I’m Isla Myers-Smith a global change ecologist from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I study plants in the Arctic and beyond and how ecosystems are responding as the planet warms. I work with my research group Team Shrub using all sorts of tools from measuring tapes to drones to capture Arctic change that we are seeing first hand at our Yukon field site Qikiqtaruk and around the tundra biome. What drew me to the Arctic over a decade ago was the promise of adventure and my curiosity about tundra responses to a warmer climate. I can’t wait to return this summer to add another piece to the puzzle of understanding Arctic greening!

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Me walking among the ice bergs up on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic last summer. Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

Looking back it is hard for me to pinpoint when exactly I developed a fascination for the lands north of the treeline – the tundra. And I don’t know when it was that I first knew that working to understand change in the Arctic was going to become my life’s passion. It has been 30 years since I first went North as a child and 17 years since my first trip to the Arctic. I have been studying the impacts of Arctic climate change since 2008, the first time I set foot on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. As I build a deeper and deeper connection to that place, I also am forming a deeper understanding of the change that is occurring on Qikiqtaruk and around the Arctic.

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My first trip to the Canadian North in 1989 and my first bush pilot flight out over the Kluane Range Mountains. Photo by Jamie Smith or Judy Myers.

My first trip to the Canadian North was when I was a 9 year-old kid. My parents were biologists and my father was working on a project in the boreal forests of the Yukon Territory. My childhood memories of that first trip North are mosquitoes, mountains, plane flights above the Kluane icefields out towards Mount Logan, and of course people who now are lifelong friends.

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The Kluane Region of the Yukon Territory – my first introduction to the north as a nine-year old child. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

Twelve years later when I was in university, I asked my undergrad thesis supervisor where should I go to do my graduate studies and she said she always thought Alaska sounded adventurous. And a year later I was moving north to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. My first trip beyond the Arctic Circle was at the very beginning of my time in Alaska. We drove up the Hull Road from Fairbanks the 600 kms North above the Brooks Range, beyond the farthest north spruce tree, to the Toolik Lake research station. It was here that I first formed an understanding of the impacts of a warming climate on tundra ecosystems – the focus of my research today.

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An old photo of mine from my Alaska days in around 2003 in the Brooks Range north of treeline in Alaska. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

Six years later, I made my first trip to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island, the destination for our 2019 research expedition. I was hanging out in the Kluane area conducting my PhD research on the increases in shrubs in the alpine tundra of the mountains around Kluane. In the same place where my father had been studying birds twenty years prior. And, I heard out about a trip to the Arctic coast of the Yukon – they were short one member of the team – someone to study the plants.

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Pauline Cove (or Ilutaq) on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island on the Arctic Coast of the Yukon Territory. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

The Yukon is a triangular shaped territory in the far northwest of Canada adjacent to Alaska. Most of the people live in the southern parts of the Yukon with nearly 80% of people living in the biggest town Whitehorse. There aren’t many people living in the Northern part of the territory which is mostly wilderness where wildlife range free. Up on the Yukon Arctic coast there are no permanent settlements, though Inuvialuit people visit the coast to fish, harvest wildlife and live off of the land. Very few other people get the opportunity to visit this remote part of the Canadian Arctic. So when the opportunity arose to replace a botanist on a trip up there, I jumped at the chance.

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A lone caribou on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel island with an abandoned oil platform in the background. Photo by Jeffrey Kerby.

Qikiqtaruk means the island in Inuvialuktun, the local language. My first memories of visiting Qikiqtaruk are of the plane flight out there from Inuvik. My first trip was on a float plane – a one and a half hour flight out to the island with all your food for the trip. It is a sometimes exciting flight across the vast Mackenzie Delta, along the Arctic coast past remnants of cold war radar stations and oil exploration from the past. It is the only island along the Yukon Arctic coastline – a chunk of mostly frozen mud, green with plants in the summer. On first approach it often emerges from the mists.

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Tent shelters in the mist on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

I have been back to Qikiqtaruk eight times and every year for the past six years. This summer I will have the chance to return again to this place that is the territory of the Inuvialuit people, but feels like an Arctic home to me. I am eagerly anticipating that flight where we head out again across the delta with our plane load of gear and food. When we finally land on the rough beach airstrip and are greeted by the Park Rangers. That moment when I step down off of that plane and back on to the island that I have come to know and where I get to observe firsthand the change that is happening across the Arctic.

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Discussing drone flights with pilot Noah Bell on Qikiqtaruk in 2018. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

By Isla Myers-Smith

Collaboration is Key for Arctic Change Research

PRESS RELEASE

Myers‐Smith, I. H., M. M. Grabowski, H. J. D. Thomas, S. Angers‐Blondin, G. N. Daskalova, A. D. Bjorkman, A. M. Cunliffe, J. J. Assmann, J. Boyle, E. McLeod, S. McLeod, R. Joe, P. Lennie, D. Arey, R. Gordon, and C. Eckert. 2019. Eighteen years of ecological monitoring reveals multiple lines of evidence for tundra vegetation change. Ecological Monographs 00(0):e01351. 10.1002/ecm.1351

https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ecm.1351

Summary

14th March 2019

The Arctic is warming rapidly, and tundra plants are responding. Research published this week in the journal Ecological Monographs of the Ecological Society of America documents how tundra ecosystem responds to warming in the Canadian Arctic. “To understand what is causing observed ecosystem changes, we need to team up and build a long-term perspective” says Dr. Isla Myers-Smith from the University of Edinburgh who led the study.

This research stems from a unique collaboration and a nearly two-decade-long ecological monitoring program that brings together university researchers, government scientists and local park rangers to study tundra vegetation change over time on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, on the Arctic Coast of the Yukon Territory, Canada.

The climate on Qikiqtaruk has been changing since ecological monitoring began at the site in 1999:
• Temperatures have warmed, increasing by over 2˚C.
• Snow and sea ice are melting earlier and the ocean is refreezing later.
• The yearly period between snow melting and returning again is around a week longer.
• The active layer, the thawed soil above the permafrost, has deepened by as much as 20 cm.

The study’s findings indicate that rapid vegetation change is underway on Qikiqtaruk:
• Shrub canopies are getting taller – shrubs have more than doubled in height in long-term monitoring plots since 1999.
• Plants are greening up earlier in spring and flowering earlier in the summer – with green up coming more than two weeks earlier over the past 18 years.
• The cover of tundra plants is increasing and bare ground is decreasing – plant cover has more than doubled and bare ground has decreased by more than half, nearly disappearing in some plots over the period of ecological monitoring.

These vegetation changes are likely due in part to the indirect, rather than only the direct effects of warming temperatures, such as a deepening of the thawed soil layer above the permafrost and increasing length of the growing season.

Richard Gordon, senior park ranger for Herschel Island – Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park and study co-author, states that: “The speed with which the climate is changing in the circumpolar region makes our observation work even more important. We have to ensure our monitoring continues to contribute towards good management decisions for parks and Arctic ecosystems as a whole.”

Ricky Joe, study co-author, who first became a Yukon Park ranger in 1999 states: “People are concerned that Qikiqtaruk is changing. It’s very different to what I saw when I first came here when I was 18… The changes are impacting people’s lives…”

Meagan Grabowski, study co-author who conducted an internship with Yukon Parks to improve the monitoring protocols says: “Because so few northern researchers are also northern residents, who observe the landscape year-round and are collecting a composite memory of ecological history, it is key to increase collaboration in all kinds of data collection and interpretation. The plant phenology program, in combination with the weather, snow, and wildlife monitoring on Qikiqtaruk, is an example of a bridge between people living in the North and people conducting research in the North.”

Dr. Isla Myers-Smith, head of the Team Shrub research group that have been working on Qikiqtaruk since 2008, states that: “The two-decade long ecological monitoring program on Qikiqtaruk is unique and one of the longest studies of its kind in the Arctic. It has been an amazing opportunity for my team to get to conduct scientific research on the island in collaboration with Yukon Parks, government scientists and other researchers. And it is only through this collaboration that we have been able to put together a picture of how this tundra ecosystem is changing as the climate warms.”

This project was funded by Yukon Parks, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) of the UK, Yukon Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Trust, Yukon College and the University of Edinburgh.

Contact information

Isla Myers-Smith, University of Edinburgh (isla.myers-smith@ed.ac.uk)
Richard Gordon, Yukon Parks (Richard.Gordon@gov.yk.ca)
Cameron Eckert, Yukon Parks (Cameron.Eckert@gov.yk.ca)

Additional information

https://teamshrub.com/, https://twitter.com/TeamShrub, https://www.instagram.com/teamshrub/, https://www.facebook.com/teamshrub/

@TeamShrub, #TeamShrub, #Qikiqtaruk

Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe
https://teamshrub.com/2017/08/14/changes-on-qikiqtaruk-perspectives-from-ranger-ricky-joe/

Qikiqtaruk perspectives by ranger Edward McLeod
https://teamshrub.com/2017/09/28/qikiqtaruk-perspectives-by-ranger-edward-mcleod/

Qikiqtarukmiut – summary of an internship with Yukon Parks by Meagan Grabowksi
https://teamshrub.com/2015/09/26/qikiqtarukmiut/

Photos, videos and captions

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Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin

The ecological monitoring program on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island has been running since 1999 and is a product of collaborative research by academics, government scientists and local park rangers. Rapid change is underway on this Arctic island. Shrub canopies are getting taller, the timing of events in the lives of plants, such as first leaf out and first flower, is also shifting, and bareground is decreasing as shrubs and grass species are increasing in abundance. On Qikiqtaruk, we find that the vegetation changes are likely due to the indirect, rather than the direct, effects of climate change, such as the deepening of the active layer and the increasing length of the growing season. Only with long-term records such as these can we understand the rate and drivers of vegetation change at sites around the tundra biome.

 

Photos by unknown (1987) and Isla H. Myers-Smith (2017)

A picture can tell a thousand words and can be a very important data point. Vegetation change such as increases in shrubs are particularly dramatic in the Ice Creek watershed on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island. Repeat photographs from 2009 to 2018 can be compared to an original photograph from 1987 to document the extent and rate of changes in shrub cover in this part of the island. In recent years, we have complimented these images with drone surveys and time lapse photography to quantify how representative these changes are with other sites across the island and around the tundra biome.

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Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin

Team Shrub collaborates with Yukon Parks rangers and other collaborators to study vegetation change on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic. Our research team is made up of early career researchers from the University of Edinburgh and people living and working in the Canadian North. Each summer, we come back from the field with lots of data and memories of exciting adventures, but also gratitude for the opportunity to be on Qikiqtaruk and experience this unique and rapidly changing ecosystem. To read more about our experiences in the Arctic, check out our blog https://teamshrub.com/lab-blog/

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Photo by Mariana García Criado and Gergana N. Daskalova

A pin drops in the tundra, and then 11,999 more pin drops follow. Every year we monitor the composition and structure of plant communities on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, and one of our key tools is a thin metal pin flag. By recording each plant the pin touches every time we drop it, we can get insights into how plant communities are changing from one year to the next. Over nearly two decades, we have observed rapid change in these slow-growing tundra plant communities including the invasion of the grass species Alopecurus alpinus and Arctagrostis latifolia into the plots from the surrounding landscape. Data sets like this one, when synthesized with other long-term ecological monitoring, are helping us to understand how biodiversity is changing not only on Qikiqtaruk, but at sites around the tundra biome.

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Photo by Jeffrey T. Kerby

Most of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island is underlain by ice-rich permafrost. The very top layer of this permafrost – the active layer – thaws during the summer and then re-freezes as winter approaches. Climate warming has been linked to a deepening of the active layer – each year more of the permafrost thaws, thus changing the conditions in which plants grow in the Arctic. To find out how active layer depth is changing, we use a metal probe to record how deep into the ground it goes before hitting ice. Over the last 20 years, active layer depth on Qikiqtaruk has almost doubled, which then goes on to alter the amount of nutrients available for plants to use, leading to changes in the vegetation communities on the island.

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Photo by Anne D. Bjorkman

There is great beauty to be found when you get up close and personal with tundra plants. Here, the seeds of Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia) twist as they develop. Once ripe, they straighten and feather outward to be carried away by the wind, dispersing to new environments across the tundra landscape. As temperatures warm, spring can come earlier and the phenology – the timing of when plants open their leaves, flower, set their seed or turn yellow – can shift too. Changing plant phenology influences interactions between the plants, their pollinators and the species that depend on these plants for food. From plants, to bumble bees to muskox and caribou – life in Arctic food webs are connected in complex ways.

 

Video by Noah Bell

Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island is a remote part of the Canadian Arctic, but also is located in the territory of the Inuvialuit people and has a long human history.  The impressive tundra landscapes of the island are undergoing rapid change as the climate warms, sea ice retreats and permafrost thaws. And each summer, Qikiqtaruk is home to park rangers, government scientists and researchers working together to monitor and study this fragile tundra ecosystem.

 

Video by Isla Myers-Smith

Changing plant phenology – the timing of the green up of leaves and flowering of plants – is one of the plant responses to climate warming that we have been observing in the Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island monitoring program. Time lapse photography in addition to detailed observations every three days collected by park rangers allow us to track how the timing of flowering across the landscape is changing over time and with warming.

A drone pilot’s misadventures during his first Arctic field season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willow

Enter the world of willows. Journey to the south-west corner of the Yukon, to a land of glorious landscapes, shrubs and magic, where willows from the south and north live side by side… to a place that never existed (prior to 2014), to a time that is now (with a small blog posting delay). It is a world where a courageous team plants willows, living out an adventure that tests how shrubs grow in a warmer climate.

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

An epic journey

A journey across altitudes and latitudes – from the shores of Kluane Lake up to the plateau above it and Pika Camp; from Qikiqtaruk to Inuvik to Whitehorse to Kluane again. The journeys have been long, but they’ve been fruitful. What’s left behind is a garden full of willows with different origins. Now, they share a common new home, but their journey is far from over.

A time when a willow (or over 100) could tip the balance between environmental and genetic constraints

How do willows respond to increases in temperature? If a willow from the north is propagated in the south and starts experiencing the warmer climate there, it is freed of the environmental constraints of the harsher northern climate. But if it’s genes that determine how much a willow grows, the change in climate might have little effect. So which way does the balance tip? And like in most good movies, is there a twist that nobody saw coming? Stay tuned for more as we piece together the common garden discoveries we’ve made so far.

A time for unlikely heroes

The heroes of this story are many, and it’s their combined work that has made the common garden what it is today. From many of Earth’s corners, people have come to the common garden and worked away – preparing the beds, moving soil and sand, planting, weeding, measuring, recording observations, the list goes on and on!

A time when courage could be found where you least expect it

Along the shore of Kluane Lake as we carry buckets and buckets of water under the blistering sun. In the floodplain on Qikiqtaruk as we collect willow cuttings drenched by the rain. Up in the mountains where each step takes us potentially one step closer to finding an arctic willow specimen from which we can take a cutting to propagate in the garden. Along the path from Outpost Camp to the garden as we walk there wondering what the garden will look like. But really, when one most needs courage is when downloading data off HOBO temperature data loggers. Just when you’ve figured one data logger out, you move onto the next to find that it’s a slightly different model, needing different tools to open it up, different batteries and a different type of cable. After the great HOBO trials of 2017, this year we were ready with all the tools, batteries, cables and courage we imagined we could possibly need. There were trials, moments when the goal seemed unreachable, but just in the nick of time, on our last day in Kluane, we managed to install the right software for the special HOBO cable and we got the data! Courageous!

Not a time when good humans risked their lives

All risk assessment forms were filled on time, with all safety protocols carried out and of course, the best heroes are the ones with expedition-level first aid training.

If a willow dies not all hope for the future is lost

Sadness ensues when a willow succumbs to drought, heat, disease or fails to establish in its new home. Soothing the pain are all the other willows that continue holding onto life in the common garden. And when it comes to an experiment, there is value in death as well. As Haydn pointed out earlier in the summer after hearing about the drought in Kluane, regardless of the balance between life and death in the garden, there are still many great discoveries ahead.

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

A time of great adventure

Will the 2018 willows we brought from Qikiqtaruk and high up on the Kluane Plateau make it in the common garden? Now, a mere stick hints to all the potential shrubbiness of the new willows, but what is now a stick, can be a thriving shrub next year. Will that indeed be the case? How will our willows fare with the approaching winter? Only time can tell. All the best stories leave you hanging for at least 10 months, right?

From Team Shrub and the shrubs of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, Kluane Plateau and Pika Valley, comes the Common Garden. Stay tuned for scientific discoveries!

Text by Gergana
Video footage: Noah Bell, Isla Myers-Smith & Gergana Daskalova
Video editting: Gergana Daskalova

Welcome to the Arctic, welcome to the real world

For the past several summers, I have set the following message on my Skype account: “Sigh. I’m back from the Arctic and back to the real world”. But this summer, I switched things up. The message now reads: “I’m off to the Arctic and off to the real world. Yay!” The Arctic is very much the real world, more real than the rest of my life perhaps, and here’s why.

Skype

In the Arctic, life focuses around the daily routine – meals, fieldwork, what to pack in your bag – warm clothes, snacks, drone equipment, etc. And what sets that daily routine is the weather, wildlife and the Earth’s elements in all forms. What does it matter when the work day starts if it is windy and raining and you can’t do the work you need to do. But equally if the sunshine and light winds come at any time, morning, noon and night, you need to be ready to get out there! For the last four days, the weather has been holding us back.

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

Update Monday 8:20 AM, 13th August 2018: Today, we are here on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island – on the day we were meant to fly out of the island and back to that supposed “real world”. Low clouds have been whipping past the island and there has been some drizzle. Not the ideal conditions for a plane flight. Our bags are packed and we are mostly ready to go, but we are on hold waiting for the weather and for the next available slot for the charter plane to pick us up, supposedly tomorrow at 5pm.

We had an epic day of data collection out at Slump D to get high resolution 3D models of the thawing slump with an added bonus of thermal data collected with a FLIR Duo R sensor – images of the temperature of the surface to help us understand how slumps thaw. That took us a good six hours of flying with two drone teams and two drone platforms – a Phantom 4 Advanced multicopter and an FX-61 Delta fixedwing. Surprisingly, the weather did not deteriorate that day as it often does when you head out in the boat to go to the farther away sites and we managed to get all the data collected.

Here are some of those very data. On the top left you can see the same part of Slump D in mid July and early August. The slump head wall has thawed a bit and the snow patches are smaller. Below you can see this same bit of slump in the four spectral bands of the Parrot Sequoia sensor – red, green, red edge and infrared. Different features of the tundra landscape are visible across these spectral bands – this is the information that we will extract to understand how rapidly these systems are thawing.

The last few days of the field season were not as epic. Team “Resting Drone” as we now call ourselves attempted to collect the last of our multispectral drone data. We hiked out to one of our focal research sites Collinson Head (Nuvuruaq) with all of our drone equipment – three drones and very heavy bags full of batteries and warm clothes. And then we spent all day out on the tundra waiting – on the first day for the winds to die down, and on the second day in the still calm winds for the fog to blow away.

Sadly, the weather did not cooperate and no drone data were collected. With periodic storms coming in the month of August, that was our last window for drone flying and without the stars aligning, the end of season multispectral data could not be collected. Sigh!!! At least there were some multispec data from the 3rd of August, which wasn’t that long ago. Sometimes it is hard to come to terms with the elements dictating which data get collected and when. All I wanted was one more day of late season drone data out at Collinson Head, our long-term monitoring site where we track the seasonal changes in the vegetation, but it was not to be.

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

Update Tuesday 8:20 AM, 14th August 2018: Every morning we call in to provide a weather check for the pilots at Aklak Airlines. As I said in my sat phone call, now it is very windy with up to 50+ km/hr gusts of winds from the west to northwest. The ceiling height is variable with some low cloud around at 400 ft. Again, not ideal for the plane. Maybe the twin otter will be able to get us this evening?

It isn’t too windy to go collect markers though, so we head out across the tundra to deconstruct the remaining drone plots that we optimistically left in place in case we could fly the drones. It is beautiful out there with the tundra just starting to turn from green to golden brown. It is a late year for plant phenology – the timing of the greening, flowering and yellowing of the plants. In 2018, the plants greened up about two to three weeks later than in recent years, back to the timing of the growing season from the late 90s and early 2000s. This year has been a cold year across the Canadian Arctic. Having that variation in when the plants are growing from year to year will help us understand and quantify how plants might respond as the Arctic continues to warm.

Can you spot the differences in these photos from the same places on the same date, the 25th of July, in 2017 versus 2018?

The differences might appear subtle, but in 2018, there are still lots of flowers visible at both sites and there is maybe less of a brown hue to the tundra leaves in 2018 relative to 2017.

Update Tuesday 4:00 PM, 14th August 2018: The weather has improved! But unfortunately, the pilots are stuck in Cambridge Bay in the Central Arctic. No flight for us today. Maybe first thing tomorrow. Time for a very long call on the sat phone to reschedule our flights, but worry not Air North, Yukon’s Airline is the best airline ever! We get our ticket changes all sorted.

The other thing that makes the Arctic just as real as the rest of our lives are the people. When you are on a remote Arctic island, your family and friends feel very far away, but equally you have a new community right there with you – the people on the island. Local people, “research neighbours”, park rangers, government workers, tourists – all the islanders join together to become a part of the overall experience that is far more interactive than many of the relationships we form in our modern lives. These are the people you eat with, chat with, share a wildlife sighting with, see every day and who share in the same daily routine set by nature’s elements.

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

The wind has died down, we can fly drones again – but we only have one evening left and the drone gear is all packed. So, we go for the final coastal erosion flight that we were also hoping to collect as those data can be collected in the evening and don’t involve too much unpacking. The sun comes out and low angle golden light bathes Simpson Point (Kuvluraq) and Pauline Cove (Ilutaq) and the flood plain. When the Arctic is this epically beautiful, I am even less keen to leave!!! We collect the data and have time for a final sauna and dip in the Arctic Ocean in addition to finishing all of the final packing. Will we be off tomorrow? Only time will tell.

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

Update Wednesday 8:20 AM, 15th August 2018: The skies are clear over the mountains and towards Inuvik. The ceiling height above the island is at least 1000 ft. The winds have died down and the seas are calm. There is no fog. Great conditions for a plane fight – and for flying drones, but the drones will have to wait for next year because the plane is on its way in less than two hours. Time to do/re-do the final packing, cleaning and to lug our bags out to the runway.

In the distance along the strip, we see one of the male muskox ambling along and when we look closer with him we see the fox. It looks like the fox is teasing the muskox, jumping around near its ankles. If only we didn’t have to pack and get our stuff to the airstrip, we could watch this wildlife encounter unfold properly. Instead we have to try to encourage that muskox to leave the strip before the plane comes!

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

Update Wednesday, 10:20 AM, 15th August 2018: The twin has landed. We load the plane and say our final goodbyes to the assembled island community. We take a last group photo and get on to the plane to take off and head back to the not-quite-so-real world away from the Arctic.

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

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