Our Google Earth Engine adventure

We love big bold questions. Synthesising data over large spatial and temporal scales and bringing together information from different sources to support our findings. Along the way, we have our trusty SuperShrub (our mini-supercomputer), but there are some things even SuperShrub can’t handle, or can’t do in the most efficient way. So how can one extract NDVI, land cover, climate data and more over thousands and thousands of kilometers and across many, many days, months and years? Why with the Google Earth Engine!

Hanging out at the Google Academy in London – where life is a beach!

Last week, Isla, Jakob, Sam and Gergana headed to London to attend a training workshop led by Noel Gorelick and Nick Clinton. A rainy morning in London with travel delays for some and generally long train rides for all wasn’t a particularly promising start, but it turns out we were off to the beach. We escaped the cold and rain at the Google Academy, where there was a strong beach theme, with colourful beach balls, giant beach chairs and even sand and faux sea grass in the corners of the room. With dreams of working with MODIS, Landsat, Hansen data and more, we were ready to tackle JavaScript and see how we can use the Earth Engine to expand our research horizons. And what did we learn??? Read on to find out.

They even have inflatable unicorns at the Google Academy!

The Earth Engine is fast. Very fast!

Gergana: Being able to quickly access and extract land use information for thousands of locations around the world is a key part of my PhD research on the drivers of biodiversity change. I had heard the Earth Engine is fast, and I knew that one of the datasets I am working with, the Hansen et al. Forest Cover Database, is accessible through the engine, but I am also stubborn and I love R! So many a day were spent trying to push R and SuperShrub to their limits… and well, the code never finished running, as I stopped it after a week of waiting! That is why I was pretty excited to see the Hansen database mentioned in the presentation prior to the workshop, and I couldn’t wait to try extracting information. I adapted some of the code we learned in the workshop and a bit of code I found online, and what do you know, 42 seconds (only 42 seconds!) later, I had a csv with thousands of rows specifying the forest loss and gain in 2001-2014 for the areas I was interested in. Amazing!

A zoomed in view of forest cover change based on the Hansen et al. database. Red is loss, purple is loss and gain and blue is gain.

The Earth Engine is flexible!

Isla: In a one-day workshop, we covered a lot of ground – from pixel classification, spectral unmixing to phenology analyses. We had a chance to explore the greening of our focal field site Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island all the way up to the greening of the Arctic! We knew that the Earth Engine was a powerful platform, as some of us had dabbled before, but it is great to finally get a better understanding of what the possibilities are. The Earth Engine could be a game changer for earth observation. Below you can see MODIS NDVI trends for our focal research site all the way up to the Western Arctic at 1 km resolution, all calculated in under 10 minutes.  You can see pixels with active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping getting browner and the less disturbed tundra vegetation getting greener at the local scale and the patterns of greening and browning in the Western Arctic region.

Greening Arctic
The greening of the Arctic from Qikiqtaruk to the entire Western Arctic calculated using the Google Earth Engine. Green pixels are sites where the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) is increasing (robust regression), brown pixels are where the NDVI is decreasing. You can see browning pixels in areas influenced by active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping at the local scale plot and greening pixels where we have evidence of tundra vegetation change. And at the larger scale you can see the strong greening pattern in the Western Arctic near our field site.

Taking time out of our usual routine to learn new things is important.

Team Shrub recently met to discuss our New Year’s resolutions, and one of our general life goals – “to keep learning new things” – was pretty high up on that list. It’s not always easy to make time for new things in our busy lives, but sometimes it is just something that you have to make happen. Even if it involves taking many trains and feeling motion sick on every single one! As much as we love coordinating Coding Club and teaching students quantitative skills at the University of Edinburgh, it’s also nice to be the one being trained and getting to attend a coding workshop from time to time!

So, for Team Shrub, harnessing the power of the Earth Engine might allow us to expand our horizons from scaling from plots to landscapes to the entire tundra biome and to quantifying the drivers of biodiversity change around the planet.  And now that the training is over, we can’t wait do dig in deeper and explore our earth observation research questions in a whole new way.

By Gergana and Isla

5 (More) Steps to Becoming an Awesome Field Assistant

Being a field assistant for the first time isn’t always easy. Following on from Izzy’s recent post, here are five more great tips from Cameron on how to be an awesome field assistant (and to have an awesome time).

1. Apply for funding

Being a field assistant costs money. In many cases you might be employed by an organisation, research group or researcher to carry out the role, in which case they will be covering your costs. However, you may be required to (or want to) provide funds yourself. But don’t fret! There are plenty of funding opportunities hidden out there for the proactive field assistant to find. Most funding requires you to submit a proposal outlining what you will be working on and how much you think it will cost. Once you have drawn up a proposal for one funding application it is easy to tailor it for others. Keep an eye on the submission deadlines and apply to as many funds as possible. In my experience, funds for undergraduates aren’t very competitive, so make use of them!

Information for funds available for University of Edinburgh Students can be found here. 

Cameron fishing for funds

2. Take good equipment

When you are setting up experiments in a snowstorm, or climbing mountains before breakfast, you quickly learn to appreciate the value of good equipment. However, if you haven’t been in the field before it can be hard to figure out what sort of stuff to bring with you. For me, the most important bits of kit are good waterproofs, a decent backpack, and an excellent pair of walking boots (we had a pair fall apart this summer). If you are going to spend a lot of time in the field you should treat yourself to some nice gear. It’s totally worth the investment and good quality stuff can really improve your comfort and safety. Why not add the cost of a beautiful jacket and boots into your funding application (for health and safety reasons, of course)?

3. Ask lots of questions

“Why are we digging up old tea bags from the ground and what’s the deal with all of these dead leaves?”

Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from the people you are working with. Asking questions and figuring out why you are doing a task can really help you get more out of your time in the field and cement knowledge learned in the classroom. You will also likely be working with people further on in their career than you. If you are thinking about a career in academia, take this chance to pick their brains about all aspects of academic life.

Haydn showing us the ways of the shrub

4. Take the bad with the good

 Hopefully you will experience many great things during your time as a field assistant but you might also experience some pretty bad lows. The work can be gruelling and the days long. A healthy mentality is key to enduring the bad moments and enjoying the good. Make sure to talk to your team if you are having difficulties, and look after yourself. It really is worth it at the end.

Conquer your mind and you can conquer the tundra

5. Let yourself be enchanted…

Fieldwork can take you to some truly special locations. We get to explore hidden valleys, shadowy forests, and secret little places far from any path. Please take some time, in-between sampling and recording data, to fully appreciate the wonderful environment and people around you. Not only does this add to your overall experience, it can also turn you into a passionate advocate for these incredible areas. Tell the stories of these places anyway you can, be it on Facebook, in prose, or down the pub. The more people know about your field site, the less likely it will fade into obscurity and be lost.

Soaking up the view

By Cameron

Team Shrub – 2017 in Review

It was a big year for Team Shrub in 2017.

Like an Arctic willow in the tundra sunshine, we soaked up the beautiful rays of knowledge and delved further into the active layer of understanding. We grew taller and bushier as new members joined the team, and branched out into new areas of research. We bore fluffy research paper catkins, for our ideas and findings to be spread on the breeze of scientific discovery, and we put down new roots, to support, work with and learn from others in the future. And, of course, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it all.

So as we look forward to all that 2018 brings, we are taking some time to revisit the year gone by, our favourite blog posts, and just how far we came in 2017.

Looking ahead: After a politically turbulent 2016, who could know what 2017 would hold? We spent the start of the year looking ahead with some trepidation, some anticipation and a good dose of excitement.

Decomposition in the cold. We kicked of a busy year as Haydn and Isla headed on a tour of Denmark and Sweden to attend the Oikos symposium on Decomposition in Cold Biomes (https://globalsoilbiodiversity.org/content/oikos-satellite-symposium). It was appropriate as the temperatures had dropped that week and it was quite snowy and chilly in beautiful Lund, Sweden as we chatted about cold-weather decomposition while cosy inside.

Taking a tea break in Umeä

To Aberdeen. In March, it was our first Team Shrub trip to Aberdeen. We had a beach coding holiday and attended the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation conference with Gergana, Haydn and Sandra presenting. We teamed up with Francesca Mancini from the Aberdeen Study Group to lead a coding workshop on efficiently analysing and visualising big-ish data in ecology.

Jumping for joy at the thought of more coding!

Glimpses of our future? By April, we had a wee glimpse into what 2017 might have in store for us through a traditional Bulgarian pastry dish with our fortunes inside!

Tundra Greening and Browning. Also in April, After a lab trip to Durham, Haydn’s home town, to talk permafrost for a day at Durham University. Andy and Isla went to the home of the Crucible, the land of snooker, the (real) region of Robin Hood, and the heartland of the only English football team named after a day of the week. (Also the home of the Arctic Monkeys – who incidentally haven’t spent much time in the Arctic). If you haven’t guessed yet, we went to the town of Sheffield for the ‘Arctic Browning Workshop’. The Arctic is warming and satellites have shown a fair bit of greening, but recent evidence suggests a decrease in the rates of increasing greenness at high latitudes and some browning events. The theme of the workshop was exploring that Arctic browning and what might be causing it.

A trip to the Highlands. Also in April and before the field season, Team Shrub headed to the highlands to show our visiting scholar Jeff Kerby and our summer drone pilot Will Palmer the beautiful countryside in our own backyard.

Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.

Team Shrub strike out across the Highlands.

The Field Season. Suddenly it was the field season. Team Shrub divided into two teams: Team Drone and Team Kluane to concurrently conduct our data collection on either end of the Yukon. From drones, tea bags, phenology, stories, sounds, smells, feasts, birding, to reunions many adventures were had and a ton of data was collected. We managed to capture over 100,000 images or more than two TB of data with our drones, to dig out over 300 tea bags from the ground, and to fill several field books or iPad spreadsheets with numbers and notes. It was a productive period and we are still working away on processing the data.

Team Shrub together at last!

New beginnings. This September marked the start of Mariana’s and Gergana’s PhD research. Mariana is modelling how plant species distributions will shift under climate change at two extreme biomes – the tundra and the savannah. Gergana is quantifying the effects of land use change on global and local patterns of species richness, abundance and composition. Sam, Claudia and Matt have joined Team Shrub for their honours dissertations. The data presents will soon be rolling as new student projects come together and our first three Team Shrub PhD students finalise their dissertations over the coming months.

First day of being a PhD student for Mariana and Gergana!

Coding. Coding Club celebrated its first birthday! Coding is a big part of our work on Team Shrub, we use coding in our research, teaching, our lives in general… where would we be without it. Perhaps a bit less constantly frustrated, but also without those moments of glory when everything runs error free! We even made up a fictional journal for the Conservation Science course that Isla organises and Gergana and Mariana are tutors on. You can find out more about AQMCS (Advanced quantitative methods in conservation science) here – Same data – different results? ConSci 2017 introduces AQMCS!

Conservation in the Cairngorms. In early October, members of Team Shrub took our annual pilgrimage up to the highlands of Scotland for the weekend fieldtrip on the Conservation Science course. With all sorts of weather, mountains, drones, delicious cake and an epic music jam, fun was had by all!

Learning about conservation in a majestic landscape

Biodiversity, the New North and the science/policy interface. Also in the month of October, along with keen undergraduates from the Conservation Science course, we went along to the Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity conference. For the undergraduates involved, it was their first ever conference. It was pretty inspiring to see the next generation of conservation scientists getting the opportunity to talk with the Scottish experts in the field. A few weeks later in November, we headed to the “Scotland and the New North” policy forum, where Isla got to hold the door for Nicola Sturgeon! A new focus looking Northward for Scotland could mean new things for Team Shrub research in future.

What will Scotland’s new focus northward mean for Team Shrub?

Also in November, Mariana attended two  policy-related events: the EEB Changing Landscapes conference in Edinburgh and the BES “Understanding science policy in Scotland“ workshop in Stirling. The first was a high-level event where major conservation organisations discussed the future of nature in Europe; while the second zoomed into Scotland to understand how science can feed into the policy-making process.

Writing. In November, Team Shrub had our first official writing retreat. We have been talking about having a writing retreat for years and finally things came together with a chance to focus on our writing goals, away from distractions. We were so inspired that we are planning on having a residential writing retreat sometime in the Spring of 2018 – where we can go from one day of super high productivity to hopefully a long weekend.

Dual Conferences. In December, Team Shrub headed to two big conferences happening at the same time! You can read about our parallel conferences experiences here. At Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium, Anne, Mariana and Gergana joined over 1500 ecologists to take in lots of exciting science, go to workshops, meet new people or catch up with old friends. Gergana and Anne gave talks, in sessions happening at the same time!

At Ecology Across Borders, we also led a Coding Club workshop, titled “Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists”. We shared our approach to teaching coding to keen participants from the conference. All of our workshop materials are online: Transferring quantitative skills among scientistsYou can also check out the Coding Club website to find all of our tutorials as well as information on how you can join our team and organise workshops at your home institution.

The other half of Team Shrub, Isla, Sandra, Haydn, Jakob, Andy and Jeff went to Quebec in Canada for the penultimate ArcticNet meeting – Arctic Change 2017. You can check out the daily round-up blog posts about the conference here – day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5. A pinnacle moment for Team Shrub was Haydn and Jakob winning the top two prizes from the conference elevator pitch contest!

Rejections. When we drafted our goals for 2017, we also set out our rejection goals. The idea behind rejection goals is that if we never get rejected, then maybe we aren’t aiming high enough. We decided to collectively aim for 50 rejections. So how did we do? We counted 23 rejections out of our goal of 50. Now perhaps we didn’t manage to count every single rejection this year, some of them we would rather just forget, but can we count the fact that we didn’t achieve our rejections as one additional fail?  Then technically we are at 24 out of 50?

Team Drone on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Northern Yukon.
Team Kluane at Outpost Station in the Southern Yukon.

Outreach. At Our Dynamic Earth, we shared the excitement of using drones for science. At the Edinburgh Science Festival, we explored art as a way to communicate science. We put together the photography exhibit “Arctic from Above” and developed collaborations with Simon SloanArchie Crofton to explore how art and data interface and ASCUS looking at tundra shrubs as time machines. Then at Curiosity forest, part of Explorathon 2017, we used drone simulators and cool dendrochronology samples to learn about how to study Arctic change.

There were also many jolly meals and trips to the pub. Many heated debates as we discussed science in lab meeting or over lunch. There were many moments of coding frustration followed by a sense of achievement as we worked through our scientific goals.

Team Shrub Lab Meeting 2
One of many lab meetings!

So those were some of the Adventures for Team Shrub in 2017.

What will 2018 hold? We already have some exciting things to share with you over the coming months, and many more in the pipeline. Hopefully we will also have some fantastically fluffy catkins this year: keep your eye on the breeze.

So from all on Team Shrub, a very happy new year and we look forward to sharing with you, working with you, and learning from you in the year to come.

By Gergana, Isla and Haydn

Our favourite Team Shrub blog posts from 2017

In 2017, we wrote 54 blog posts (including this one!). We’ve shared tales of fieldwork adventures in the Arctic, conferences, workshops, discussion groups and more.

We hope that through our words and photos we’ve provided a glimpse into life as a scientist and what the research journey involves. Indeed, things don’t always go to plan. But sometimes expectations are surpassed, or what initially seemed bad doesn’t turn out that bad after all.

It’s been a great year for Team Shrub (stay tuned for our blog post on our highlights from the year!), and as 2017 comes to a close we would like to reflect on those 54 blog posts and share our very favourites.

The votes are in. Here are the results, in no particular order: our ten favourite blog post of 2017!

Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe

Yukon Parks ranger Ricky Joe shares his perspectives on life in the Arctic, working on the land, and the changes he has observed on Qikiqtaruk.


Qikiqtaruk perspectives by ranger Edward McLeod

Yukon Parks ranger Edward McLeod shares his perspectives on working as a park ranger and the collaboration between the rangers and researchers here on the island.

Monitoring plant phenology plots on Qikiqtaruk

The Power of Stories

Fieldwork and stories tend to go hand in hand – funny stories liven up those moments when no field plan seems to work, and evenings after a day’s work can quickly go from quiet to lively chatter. Stories are how we communicate both our daily lives and our science.

Sharing stories and a meal on Qikiqtaruk

Deep in the shrubs – birding the willows on Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk

It was little more than a flash in the willows, just for an instant and then vanishing, but one that stopped me in my tracks. Could that have been a hummingbird?

Yukon Parks Conservation Biologist Cameron Eckert shares fantastic stories of bird sightings on Qikiqtaruk. Cameron has studied the birds, wildlife, and ecosystems of the Yukon’s North Slope and Herschel Island for the past 25 years, and he works with Yukon Parks Rangers to coordinate the island’s ecological monitoring programme.


The end of a chapter (and the drafting of many)

Perhaps it was when I was waving to someone with a rusty hammer across a dusty runway, dragging a sledge full of dead leaves. Or perhaps it was when digging sunflower seeds out of the snow at 6am, while listening out for birdcalls and watching for bears. Or maybe when burying teabags on a wet mountainside, hoping they didn’t blow away in the wind. Whenever it was, I came to the realisation that this mad adventure called a PhD is soon to be over.


Arctic Smellscapes

We have often asked you to imagine what it would be like to be here with us in the Arctic. Through words, photos and videos, we have tried to bring the Arctic closer to you. So close that if you just imagine, you may well see it. You could even hear it. If you ponder the many changes occurring on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island, from changes in vegetation structure and community composition to changes in what our life is like here, and listen again, you could hear a change.

The Arctic – you can see it, you can hear it, and now, for a fuller experience, we present the Arctic smellscape of Qikiqtaruk, so you can smell it, too. 

We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea

Who knew there is such a niche for describing how a place smells! The Team Shrub blog – an experience for all senses! It might have started off as a joke, but smellscapes are totally a thing now, and Arctic Smellscapes is one of the blog posts that most often comes up in our minds when we think about the summer of 2017!

Team Shrub at the Edinburgh Science Festival

The Edinburgh International Science Festival was the perfect occasion to bring together beautiful photos with cool artifacts from our fieldwork for an event under the theme of “Arctic from Above” – Team Shrub’s first exhibition!

New adventures in birding: Part 1 – Why shrubs are better than birds.

Shrubs are always there. They’re reliable little fellows, sitting quite peacefully on their little patch of soil. You can go up to a shrub, pat it on the head, give it a little hug… whatever floats your boat. Shrubs don’t care. You can come back the next day, the next day, the day after that, hey we come back year on year! Our favourite shrubs are still sticking around, stoically soaking up the sun and the storms and the deep snows of winter. Choose a shrub – they’re always there for you.


Arctic Soundscapes

If you close your eyes and imagine you are with us, the soundscape of Qikiqtaruk is as magical as the landscape! All the sounds here are so much more distinct because usually it is so quiet – even a gentle wing flap by the nearby pair of tundra swans resonates through the air. We have all enjoyed taking quiet walks after a day of fieldwork – a time to look, listen and take it all in.

Sea ice and fog along the Arctic coast with the British Mountains in the background.

Our final days on Qikiqtaruk for 2017

On the morning of our last day, everything came together.  Beautiful belugas accompanied us on our beach walk towards the data loggers on Collinson Head.  We had all the tools we required (well almost), we even managed to improvise a radiation shield out of wooden skewers and medical tape to fix the broken one on that pole.  And once we removed all the screws without dropping them in the pond below the logger box and plugged in the cable without getting it wet, the data were on our laptop in minutes! It is a great feeling to leave your field site knowing that you have accomplished all of your fieldwork goals.

A lovely meal in the sunshine on the last day before the rain and wind came!

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part IV: Theory and high-level processes in the Arctic

Page after page, we have been pondering patterns and processes in community ecology under the sounds of gusting winds and heavy rain. From one storm to the next, when our field days were cut short, we could sit by the fire in the Community Building (the oldest building in the Yukon) and delve in deeper into Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities”.

We thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Theory of Ecological Communities” whilst on fieldwork at our remote field site in the Canadian Arctic. There is particular charm in reading about a certain ecological process, be it high- or low-level, and then observing it in action moments later in the field.

The Theory of Ecological Communities
Isla’s copy of The Theory of Ecological Communities that looks like it has been eaten by a polar bear! But it was actually partially eaten by a dog. Clearly a book you can really chew on – some ecological theory you can bite into…

Highly commended (because there were a few ties in our top 10!):

Team Shrub’s Tips: CVs & Job Applications

And so we arrived, CV’s at the ready and slightly nervous, ready to discuss exactly what it takes to get your dream job. Here is a summary of our thoughts trying to encompass jobs from an undergraduate summer position, PhD or postdoc through to an academic job.


A fortune pastry for Team Shrub

What does the future hold for Team Shrub? Сладка баница (or sladka banitza) is a new year’s tradition in Bulgaria, it is a pastry that is both sweet and salty representing both the good and the bad in life and it contains pieces of paper cooked in with fortunes written on them! Sure, it isn’t quite the new year anymore, but it is a bit of a new beginning for Team Shrub with new students joining the lab for the summer’s field season or as dissertation students for next year.


Did our fortunes come true? Isla has certainly learned a few super efficient dplyr tricks along with some dplyr frustrations and there has been a tiny bit of deep machine learning on Team Shrub in 2017. Though perhaps we haven’t yet found our state of research zen nor has that big grant come through… We can tell you more in our Highlights of 2017 blog post! Until then, thank you for reading and engaging with our blog post, we have loved sharing our research and the journey towards it with you, and we look forward to another year of blogging!

By Gergana

Holiday Reading List

If your holiday is like mine, it is a chance to catch up on all the things that passed you by in the rest of 2017. Then, perhaps you will enjoy a few of the articles that I have been reading or re-visiting over the past couple of days. While explaining to my visiting family why I do the research I do, I have been drawing connections between past and current collaborators, the activities of Team Shrub over the last year and thinking ahead to future research possibilities.

The holidays for me is a time to sit in front of the Christmas tree and catch up on some reading, be it journal articles, all of the manuscripts I have been remiss on commenting on over the past few weeks or blog posts and magazine articles on topics close to my heart.

At the December ArcticNet meeting a couple weeks back, I had the chance to catch up with folks from the Canadian Museum of Nature and to ask after the world’s premier willow taxonomist George Argus. This reminded me of my visit with George during my PhD, when I spent a wintery day with him in at his farmhouse near Ottawa going through willow samples from my PhD field sites confirming my willow ID skills and hearing stories about Alaska back in the day.  Thinking about George got me thinking about my former officemate during my MSc at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Les Viereck and my former neighbour Ginny Wood.

Ginny told me in person of the incredible tale of the first assent of Denali’s South Buttress, then known as Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. George Argus, Les Viereck, Morton Wood, Elton Thayer made the climb with Ginny flying the food resupplies in the spring of 1954. On the expedition, the very same George Argus that I met during my PhD, was left in a tent for over a week with injuries after tragedy struck high the team up on the mountain. The following article from back in 2002, gives a riveting account of the tale which is well worth checking out if you have never heard the story before. These science and conservation heroes of mine, make my own adventuring seem very tame. But I feel privileged to have got to know Ginny, Les and George during my MSc and PhD, and they remain a source of inspiration to this day.

Remembering Denali’s Greatest Rescue

George Argus sticking his head out of his tent when stuck on Denali back in 1954.

Ginny would be appalled by the current political situation in the US.  She used to discuss with me the hubris of previous administrations – a word I will always associate with her. I can’t think what she would say now.  Ginny was a great proponent of wilderness preservation in Alaska and was the co-founder of the Alaska Conservation Society.  She was a key supporter of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in 1960 when she lobbied U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to establish the reserve.

This beautiful article by Christopher Solomon from November in the New York Times makes the recent passing of the tax bill and the opening of ANWR to development this month all the more poignant. This vast tundra region adjacent to the Yukon North Slope where Team Shrub has been working for several years is a fragile wilderness that is currently exposed to potentially dramatic impacts from climate change. ANWR truly merits protection from development and it makes saddens me deeply to see that protection lost.

Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter being recognized for their contributions to Alaskan conservation in 2001.

Reflecting on the North Slope of Alaska, makes me remember that it is also a place where my car was once broken into while I was on a five-day hike in the foothills of the Brooks Range. Some of my stuff was stolen including my back pack with a few telephone numbers in it, including Ginny’s number and that of one of my MSc supervisor. When a fisherman found the backpack floating down the Sagavanirktok River, he assumed the worst, but luckily I had just arrived back to Fairbanks and could let everyone know I was okay. It was also a bit of a challenge to make an insurance claim, as the car was broken into in the jurisdiction of Barrow Alaska even though Barrow was over 500 kms away with no connecting roads. There was a lot of confusion on the other end of the line when I tried to call in the break in. That car, Dr. J, met it’s end in a scrap heap this very year in 2017, after serving me loyally for over a decade and it is a vehicle I will greatly miss. Oh, the adventures that two-door Hyundai Accent without power steering and I had!

My travels to the North Slope of Alaska with my trusty car Dr. J back in the early 2000s when I was an MSc student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Thinking about future development on the North Slope of Alaska, makes one consider the current rapid development in other regions of the Arctic.  This evocative article that appeared in the October issue of National Geographic follows the Nenets reindeer herders on their annual 800 km migration across the Yamal peninsula through the development of the Russian oil fields. I guess I knew about the article when it first came out, but I didn’t get a chance to read it properly until this holiday. The article features a colleague of Team Shrub, Bruce Forbes, who has been studying and working with the Nenets people for decades to understand their resilience in the face of change.

They Migrate 800 Miles a Year. Now It’s Getting Tougher.

One of the team, Jeff Kerby had a chance to visit Yamal this past summer funded by a National Geographic Explorer grant.  In this blog post, he recounts his time in Yamal during an unexpected heat wave working to set up exclosures to understand the impacts of herbivory and collecting drone imagery as a part of the 2017 data collection for the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network that Jeff and I have been coordinating. Fieldwork in Yamal seems much more challenging that our work in Northern Canada with soaring temperatures and thick clouds of mosquitoes, but the imagery that Jeff has put together is striking. Aerial shots of reindeer herds crossing the tundra looking like ants from above and fog flowing like a river past shrubby tundra. I wonder what secrets hi-tech drones will indeed reveal.

Indigenous Cultures and Hi-Tech Drones Reveal Secrets of Siberia

And if you haven’t seen it already, you should totally check out Jeff’s other Nat Geo contribution this year when his photography and story were featured in the April issue of the magazine. This time it is the Gelada monkeys of the Ethiopian highlands that Jeff highlights with stunning photographs and a compelling scientific story.

Where the World’s Only Grass-Eating Monkeys Thrive

On the Nat Geo theme, I wanted to give a shout out to this story about the “Trees of the Tundra” featuring Steve Mamet about treeline research in Churchill, Manitoba on the coast of Hudson’s Bay. In his quote, Steve highlights the importance of data collection in tundra ecosystems to fill in the gaps where sophisticated computers models make assumptions. Filling in the gaps is one of the main motivators of Team Shrub’s research as well.

Trees in the Tundra

Beavers, Canada’s iconic national animal, have also recently featured in the New York Times. In this December article, the Beaver is highlighted as an agent of change in the tundra in an article covering the research of Team Shrub collaborator Ken Tape. I first remember seeing tundra Beavers in Denali National Park during my time in Alaska. The Beaver is relatively at home in a treeless tundra as long as there are tall shrubs to chew on, so to is the Moose and other creatures more normally associated with habitats south of treeline. As they move into tundra ecosystems they may alter those landscapes in relatively permanent ways such as enhancing permafrost thaw as the New York Times article highlights.

And while we are on the theme of treelines, tundra and climate change, Steve, Jeff, Ken, myself and Team Shrub’s other collaborators Trevor Lantz, Rob Fraser and Carissa Brown are all featured in this online piece by Kate Allen in the Toronto Star on the impact of climate change on species distributions in the Arctic and beyond. Whether it is shrubs, trees or butterflies, climate change could be redrawing the map of where species live and thrive.

The Great Global Species Shakeup

“Matched up photos of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island Territorial Park in the Yukon to visualize changes to vegetation, permafrost and coastal erosion” – from the Toronto Star

If you want to read a bit more about Team Shrub’s media coverage this year check out Jakob’s excellent interview with Camellia Williams in September about our drone research:

Capturing change in the Arctic

Or have a read of Haydn’s interview with Lesley Evans Ogden about the Tea Bag Index – using the humble tea bag to quantify controls on litter decomposition across the tundra biome.

Brewing Big Data: The Tea-Bag Index

tea bags

And, if you want to see some of the changes we saw first-hand in the Arctic this summer, check out the CBC coverage:

Researchers stunned by rapid rate of erosion on Herschel Island

Coastal erosion near Pauline Cove this summer. Check out http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/yukon-herschel-island-erosion-1.4253948 for the CBC article about it!

Finally, if you want to ponder how art and science can be brought together and how tundra shrubs can act as time machines to help us understand past vegetation change, check out our blog post about Team Shrub’s contributions to the Edinburgh Science Festival:

Team Shrub at the Edinburgh Science Festival

So, that is a wrap up of some of Team Shrub’s media coverage in 2017 and a taster of what I have been reading and thinking about this holiday break. Thinking back on colleagues of the past and current collaborations makes me wonder what 2018 has in store. The Arctic is likely to continue to experience rapid change, and hopefully Team Shrub will be there collecting and analysing to help fill in some of the key gaps in our understanding of tundra vegetation change. And maybe this time next year, we can update you further on some stories of Arctic change.

By Isla

One day, 12 795 words: The Team Shrub Writing Retreat

12 795 words in one day! That is a dissertation right there pretty much. And members of Team Shrub wrote those words over a mere four hours of structured writing time. How did we do it? To find out more read on…

We have long loved the idea of a writing retreat – setting aside time to just write. No distractions, no emails, even no coding, just pure writing. It always feels hard to focus just on writing – little urgent tasks creep in and next thing you know, the day is over and that Word document is still blank. Writing retreats are a fun combination of peer pressure and peer support. Nothing like the sound of many people writing to make you realise that you really should be writing, too! We all have things we could be writing right now – a manuscript, an assignment, a thesis chapter, a blog post (a great distraction from what I really should be writing right now, but hey, this is still writing…). It’s great when we have a special occasion when all those things do get written – the Team Shrub writing retreat!

In November, Isla organised a writing retreat, right here in Edinburgh, so a convenient location for all of us. It was quite the fancy setting, with a particularly inspirational ceiling in our writing room!

The fancy setting of our writing retreat!

We started off the morning by laying out what we would like to achieve during the day and in the specific one hour writing sessions ahead of us. We shared our writing goals, Isla told us a bit about how writing retreats work, and with an alarm set off to ring in an hour’s time, we began writing! The break between the writing sessions gave us the chance to refuel with tea and coffee and chat about how our writing is going. And then another one hour of solid writing followed.

Next, we moved onto a delicious lunch in a nearby cafe, followed by a casual work session with even more delicious lattes, flat whites, mochas and such! Our cafe visit gave us the chance to chat about our writing projects, how they are progressing, and ponder over any questions we might have. We liked the combination of the more strict writing sessions in the writing room with the casual cafe session – the best of both worlds!

We also pondered what kind of writers we are and what our strategies for success at the writing retreat were. Do you edit as you write? Do you write everything that comes to mind and edit later? These questions, and many more, are covered in Stephen Heard’s great book “The Scientists’s Guide to Writing”. I particularly like the chapter on writing behaviour. I over-analyse to a fault, so if I give in to the temptation to really discuss or write about writing behaviour and writing strategies, I’d never write anything else! I may or may not be wondering whether there is a test online about writing personalities, but alas, I shall be strong and focus on this.

We wrapped our writing retreat feeling very accomplished. So how did we do it? Here are a few of the elements that came together to bring our writing successes, though of course, everyone is different and everyone writes in a different way.

  1. Make the time. Most of us could have been doing different things that Friday, some of which important, but with writing, often one really has to make the time to make it happen, which sometimes involves some tough decisions and prioritising writing over all the other tasks on our to do lists.
  2. Set specific goals. It’s hard to asses progress if you are not quite sure what you are aiming for, so being specific always helps. How many words would you like to write, or are there particular sections of your writing project that you would like to finish before the day wraps up?
  3. Share your goals. Here comes the peer pressure and support again. Sharing your goals makes them more real, which can motivate you to really achieve them, and knowing that someone else is watching and knows what you are meant to achieve, can provide a dose of healthy pressure to write.
  4. Track progress and adjust your goals as you go. At our writing retreat, we had one hour writing sessions, followed by a break where we could reflect on how we are progressing with our goals. Things don’t always go to plan, some things are easier, others harder than anticipated, and that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. On the contrary, being able to accurately asses your progress and adjust your goals is a great skill to hone.
  5. Just write. We had a few rules for our writing retreat, which I think helped us all focus more on just writing. We had to do our reading and note taking in advance, so that during the writing retreat, we focused on just writing.
  6. No internet, no phones. Sometimes writing retreats are purposefully in places with no internet, so that you don’t get stuck answering emails and constantly having to restart your writing process. In our case, we were right in Edinburgh, so the internet was there, so it was up to us to decide whether or not we turn it off. But the peer pressure was there to not check one’s phones during the writing blocks.
  7. Save, back up. Make sure you save often and that your work is backed up – it would be a shame for all that writing to go to waste! Isla had a complete computer melt down in one writing session with her reference software, but she managed to get things back on track and rewrite that paragraph that got deleted!
  8. Reward yourself. Writing retreats are intense and it’s always nice to have a little reward at the end. The satisfaction of having done something you’ve been postponing for ages, a nice hot drink, a delicious meal with the jolly company of your lab mates.
  9. Follow up on your writing projects. Especially if you are the kind of writer that leaves a lot highlighted text saying things like “insert reference, add link, double-check this is true”. Setting aside a full day or more to pure writing is great and it can be really efficient, but it’s also important to remember your writing projects and to try making the time to work on them in between all our other daily tasks.

We all thought the writing retreat was great, we wrote a lot, and we’ve said we should have writing retreats more often, so here’s to a happy and productive 2018 and more writing!

By Gergana

Secrets, rumours and facts from two parallel conferences

From secrets through rumours to facts – science in a nutshell!

Team Shrub heading to two big conferences!

Our team recently attended two big conferences – Ecology Across Borders (check out our highlights so far) and ArcticNet (you can read our round-ups of day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5). Thousands of scientists coming together to share their findings and ponder new directions. Despite the ocean between us, it still feels like we are going through the conferences together – the magic of emails, blog posts and twitter! Sometimes it helps with my fear of missing out, sometimes it makes it worse.

Weather-wise, it’s not that much different thanks to the snow storm in Belgium, though it is colder in Quebec, and I imagine Canada knows how to deal with snow! Conference-wise, it feels like there are many ubiquitous aspects – the big rooms, full up to the brim with scientists, the slight madness of poster sessions, the snacks that get eaten by the time you find out they’ve appeared.

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A word cloud from the abstracts of some of the talks at Ecology Across Borders.
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A word cloud from the talk titles of some of the talks at Arctic Net.

At the Science Comedy Slam, part of the Ecology Across Borders conference in Belgium, Yvonne Buckley told us about her love of seeds, of which she has weighted many (thousands!), and what the process felt like. I loved her description of the scientific process – we go from secrets, the exciting unknown, to the rumours, our findings that we tentative believe in, but things are not quite clear yet, to the facts, the statements we’ve backed up with strong evidence.

Now that both Team EAB and Team ArcticNet have wrapped up their respective conference experience, we’d like to share some of our favourite secrets, rumours and facts.

Team ArcticNet excited for all the secrets, rumours and facts ahead!

Secrets. The major unknowns.

Ecology Across Borders

  • What is the most appropriate model to answer your question? In a time of many R packages and many different ways to design your models, which one is the best for your particular question? Laura Williamson compared generalized additive models (GAM) and hierarchical Bayesian spatial models (HBM) with Integrated Nested Laplace Approximation (INLA) to interpret aerial video survey data. The INLA models revealed finer patters in the distribution of harbour porpoises.
  • How does sub-individual variation compare with between-individual and between-species variation? And what does that mean for the scale at which we collect data and answer our research questions? We pondered that after Carlos Herrera‘s plenary talk about trait variance at the sub-individual level.
  • How have global change drivers re-shaped ecosystems around the world and what will their effects be in the future? How do global change drivers such as land use change and climate change interact? Do different taxa respond differently? Do the same taxa respond differently in different locations? What are the predictors of those responses? So many questions!


  • What happens below ground? When we’re dealing with the tundra, about 90% of biomass can be below ground. The unseen iceberg indeed! We heard many fascinating talks about vegetation change over the course of the conference, and yet for so many of us, the huge subsurface part of the tundra remains a mystery. Paul Grogan‘s talk on the mechanisms behind birch shrub expansion, with that fancy animation that his students made him add, really emphasized the point that it is time for all of us tundra ecologists to get out our shovels and do some below-ground ecology!
  • How do processes scale from individual plants flowering in different parts of tundra landscape up to the seasonal signal of greenness observable by satellites across the northern hemisphere? These were questions pondered across a variety of talks from Zoe Panchen and Cassandra Elphinstone‘s talks on plant phenology to Jakob’s talk about his drone phenology research and Jeff Kerby‘s talk on the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network. Team Shrub has been wondering how drone data can provide that key link to understand how patterns and processes such as plant pheonogy scale across tundra ecosystems. Perhaps we are entering a new age of spatial ecology where we finally have the data collection and analytical tools to ask the scaling questions that have been plaguing ecologists for decades!
  • What would happen if there was no coffee? This is something I wonder at many a conference.

Rumours. The hypotheses, the first results coming in.

Ecology Across Borders

  • Model structure and type of inference mattersLaura Williamson showed us how INLA models (spatial models based on Bayesian inference) can pinpoint where harbour porpoises occur in different months of the year, where they feed, and where they just hand out.
  • Areas of high conservation value and areas of high recreation value do not overlap –  Francesca Mancini investigates what are the implications for human and nature? Perhaps positive in terms of conservation areas not suffering degradation costs due to high visitation, but also negative for ecosystem services, as humans become more disengaged and disconnected with nature.
  • Just Google it… and then determine distribution of different species morphs, pick up on discrete variation in species traits and delimit species rangesGabriella Leighton uses Google images to do all of that! Comparisons with traditional field studies show good agreement between the two methods, opening the scope for wider uses of Google images in research.


  • What’s going on with the carbon cycle in the tundra? This could have been a secret, but we know more than enough to be making a few hypotheses here. Over the course of Arctic Change we heard a lot about sinks and sources of carbon in the tundra. It does contain more than twice as much of the stuff as is held in the atmosphere after all. But the fascinating thing for me is that there is still huge uncertainty over exactly what climate change might mean. Thawing permafrost and release of soil carbon, almost certainly. Faster decomposition, probably. What about greater productivity, storage in biomass? What about litter decomposition, will that be faster or slower as communities change? Over the various talks and posters we saw evidence for both sides, and quite a few wonderful, but certainly rumoured feedback loops including some of those feedbacks actually tested with real-world tundra data in Peter Lafleur and Elyn Humphreys’ poster entitled ‘Filling the Gaps in Shrub Tundra-Atmosphere Interactions in a Changing World’.
  • Can we predict precipitation? One thing that stuck with me after this conference was that moisture really matters! Whether it was Jackie Hung’s talk on nitrogen cycling in wetlands, Jennifer Baltzer’s research into what makes a spruce forest spruce, or Carl Barrette’s stark findings on loss of snow in Nunavik, water cropped up again and again. And yet we also heard how difficult it is to predict. So perhaps this is one of the most important rumours to confirm – not what has happened, but what will happen.
  • Did someone say that John England, winner of the 2017 Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research, was drinking beer from a boot?? I never confirmed this rumour, but I have a feeling some of our team saw the evidence for themselves.

Facts. The evidence.

Ecology Across Borders

  • The drivers of the distribution of threatened species vary around the world – energy availability is most important but there is variation across space and taxa. Christine Howard
  • Sub-individual variation influences fitness through effects on fecundity and resource use. Carlos Herrera 
  • A synthesis of the effects of climate change on breeding phenology of seabirds reveals that populations respond differently through time, and location  influences how populations respond. On average, seabird populations worldwide have not adjusted their breeding phenology between 1952 and 2015. Katharine Keogan


  • The Arctic is rapidly changing with decreasing sea ice cover being documented in all different ways.  There were lots of different approaches to understanding the changing sea ice including using new Sentinel-1 SAR imagery to document the cover of different aged sea ice in Stefan Muckenhuber‘s talk, to understanding the melting first-year sea ice as a part of a UK-Canada collaboration lead by Jack Landy, to data collected by local people with their GPS or phones from the plenary by Joel Heath and Lucassie Arragutainaq, winner of the 2017 Inuit Recognition Award, on the Arctic Eider Society‘s Inuit knowledge wiki & social mapping platform called SIKU.
  • Put the people in the picture. Although we attended Arctic Change with our ecologist hats on (no really, very lovely grey Team Shrub hats!), the one thing we cannot ignore is the importance of people, and particularly those that live in Arctic regions. ArcticNet did a fantastic job of getting the voices and concerns of northerners heard, of putting northern interests at the centre of the research agenda, and for calling people out when needed. Good job.
  • Pictures of bears make people pay attention. Nice work Cameron Eckert and Jay Frandsen for your compelling presentations on using camera traps to understand wildlife abundance, travel routes and resource use.
Isla was super stoked to see an awesome poster by her one time undergrad dissertation PhD student supervisor Elyn Humphreys filling in the feedbacks from her 2011 review paper.

But really, the line between rumours and facts in science is often blurry – and facts might not always stay facts, as new evidence continues to come in. That might even bring us back to the secrets, but what ecologist doesn’t love a good secret or rumour.


By Gergana, Haydn and Isla

Arctic Change 2017 – Thursday – Friday round-up

So, it is the end of the week Friday morning and the final plenary session of the Arctic Change 2017 conference. Team Shrub is not feeling quite as perky as we were at the beginning of this conference, in fact some of us are feeling rather beat! It has been a week of full on science – conferencing by day and preparing talks by night. Last night was banquet night, a big night for Team Shrub – thus the delay with the Thursday round up. So, to find out about our final days at Arctic Change 2017 here is the Thursday – Friday round up.

It was a very proud moment yesterday for everyone on Team Shrub, and for me in particular as their supervisor, when PhD students Haydn and Jakob swept the leader board in positions 1 and 2 for the 1-minute presentation pitch competition. From the very back of the banquet hall to the front of the stage, with shouts and whoops from the Team Shrub table, Jakob and Haydn accepted their awards (with or without shoes on)!

Check out their awesome pitch YouTube videos here on the Tundra Tea Bag Experiment and using drones to quantify Arctic Tundra greening:

Both Haydn and Jakob gave presentations on Thursday at the very same time. Forcing me and the rest of the team to have to choose!!! Haydn presented Team Shrub’s tundra plant trait research to link vegetation change via traits to changes in ecosystem functions. Jakob presented results from his PhD and the Shrub Tundra NERC project quantifying tundra greening across the growing season using drones and satellite data. Both Jakob and Haydn totally rocked their presentations to packed rooms with great feedback and engagement from the audiences.

Next, Andy presented about his work as a part of the Shrub Tundra project to quantify tundra change using drones. From coastal erosion, thaw of retrogressive thaw slumps to quantifying shrub growth – Andy covered a lot of ground very clearly explaining the rapidly advancing technology and awesome Arctic applications. It was super exciting for me to see our hard work over the past three years on the NERC funded ShrubTundra project presented by the team.

I gave a talk in the UK-Canada Arctic Collaboration session sharing the preliminary results of Team Shrub’s 2017 collaboration funded by the UK-Canada bursary programme. We are collaborating with the Arctic Ecology Lab and Trevor Lantz at the University of Victoria, Robert Fraser at Natural Resources Canada, Jurjen van der Sluijs at the NWT government and Eric Cheyne and Aurora College to quantify tundra shrub biovolume to understand the drivers of tundra shrubification in the Western Canadian Arctic. My talk hopefully convinced the audience of the power of collaboration, and how by teaming up with other groups through this collaboration and also the newly founded High-latitude Drone Ecology Network you can collect data and answer scientific questions beyond the reach of any one group. You can check out our recent coverage in the Toronto Star to find out more about how both Trevor’s group and Team Shrub are studying shrub change and permafrost thaw in the Canadian Arctic.

Over coffee breaks and post presentation chats we have made some great connections this week with collaborators old and new. Thanks to everyone who stopped by the Team Shrub posters or came to chat to us after our talks.

After banquet festivities including a performance from Iqaluit’s The Jerry Cans and some late night revelries at Le Sacrilège, it is now the final day of the conference and time to wrap up our ArcticNet meeting experience for the year.

In the final plenary, Louis Fortier spoke to us about the future of ArcticNet and we heard about Yukon College becoming Yukon University. The end of the week makes me think about what is in store for Arctic research in Canada and how UK researchers like Team Shrub can play a role. I hope over the coming years, we will be able to help to answer the key questions facing the Arctic research community such as quantitatively attributing tundra vegetation change to climate warming and testing the correspondence among different records of vegetation change from on-the-ground, drone and satellite records.

The Arctic Change 2017 conference was an excellent week for Team Shrub. A chance for us to present our latest research, meet and hang out with tundra scientists from across Canada and around the world, report back on current collaborations and establish new ones and all and all have a wonderful time in beautiful Québec City. Thank you to the NERC Arctic Office, the British High Commission in Ottawa and the British Ecological Society for supporting our travel. And it turns out that all of our tweeting activity during the conference has payed off, as with our with 73K tweet impressions, we were highlighted as the top tweeters at the conference!

Now that the conference has wrapped there is time for one last meal of poutine. Until next time!


By Isla

Arctic Change 2017 – Wednesday round-up


Another day of snow in Quebec City, another day of Arctic conferencing at Arctic Change 2017. Another packed plenary, hearing from Larry Hinzman on how we can and must adapt as not only the climate changes, but many other factors as well. We heard the fascinating, and certainly complex debate around the ownership and use of the northwest passage. Finally, we stood together to celebrate the work of Dr. Michel Allard, winner of this year’s Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research.

Team Shrub was well represented in the first session of Monitoring, Modeling and Predicting Arctic Biodiversity. Isla made a convincing case for detection of various components of vegetation change and their attribution to warming. Jeff then demonstrated the scaling issues we have when going from ground-based to satellite observations – impressing the audience with drone footage at the same time.

In this session we also heard from Paul Grogan of Queens University with a fascinating talk on birch expansion driven by a decrease in herbivory rather than by increased temperatures. Last up was Pascale Ropars (who first taught me the art of digging shrubs up many years ago), presenting a whole-food-web approach to predicting biodiversity change in Northern Québec.

After a delicious lunch (the food here!) which peaked with three helpings of profiteroles, it was time to go back to the second part of the Arctic Biodiversity session. Katriina O’Kane showed us how species move individually rather than as a community during succession at a glacier’s edge. Cory Wallace and Jennifer Baltzer from the Forest Ecology Research Group at Wilfrid-Laurier also took us on a tour of alder shrubs, topographic variation, and the factors controlling black spruce abundance.

Finally, eyes starting to itch and brains hurting from a day packed full of new knowledge, we heard from Caroline Coch on the role of small catchments for dissolved organic carbon inputs, and from Dustin Whalen on how drones are being used to map coastal erosion in the Arctic.

Haydn, Jakob and myself were still on duty by our posters in the evening. Between lively scientific discussions and running into old friends, the two hours flew by and our team set out hungrily in search of poutine. Unfortunately, my insider knowledge of Québec didn’t extend to knowing Ashton’s opening hours, so the door shut in our disappointed faces. We had to turn to (highly satisfying) falafels eaten on the street in -10 degrees C weather to get back to the conference centre in time for the first screening of Breaking Ice, a documentary that took us on the Canadian research ice-breaker the Amundsen.


I suspect Haydn, Jakob, Isla and Andy are in various stages of anticipation for their Thursday talks. Good luck all!

By Sandra