Meet Team Shrub: Isla


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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Discussing drone flights with pilot Noah Bell on Qikiqtaruk in 2018. Photo by Kayla Arey.

By Isla Myers-Smith

Collaboration is Key for Arctic Change Research


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


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 (
Richard Gordon, Yukon Parks (
Cameron Eckert, Yukon Parks (

Additional information,,,

@TeamShrub, #TeamShrub, #Qikiqtaruk

Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe

Qikiqtaruk perspectives by ranger Edward McLeod

Qikiqtarukmiut – summary of an internship with Yukon Parks by Meagan Grabowksi

Photos, videos and captions


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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


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.

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.


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.

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.

Team Drone (aka Team Restless Falcon) in an optimistic looking phase on our way to Slump D.
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.

An island feast bringing together researchers, rangers and the 2018 Qikiqtaruk Elders and Youth Program.
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.

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!

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.

The twin otter in the air taking off after another successful summer of fieldwork.
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

Life in the High Arctic

Words by Isla Myers-Smith, Photos by Jeff Kerby

Summertime at Alexandra Fjord. 78 degrees north. The sun shines all day long.

Around midnight, you can experience the phenomenon of a double sun where the sun reflects off the still waters of the Fjord. One evening, we even had a quadruple sun with sun dogs – the mirrored sunlight in the air – also reflecting off the waters.

Like everywhere in the Arctic, midnight is the most magical time. But to fill you in on life in the High Arctic, here is our routine as the sun rotates around us in the 24-hour light of an Arctic summer’s day.


The mornings are often the coldest time. Temperatures are chilly, fluctuating between zero and 12 degrees. Never go out without your down jacket packed and your hat to hand. The ocean is choked with sea ice and each time the tides rise and fall the ice bergs rotate, melt, and crack to create brand new ice sculptures along the shore. Glaciers flow into the Fjord valleys, with the local Twin Glacier slowly retreating at around five metres a year back up to the permanent ice fields. Ice surrounds you even at the end of July – this is the High Arctic after all.


The daily routine keeps us to schedule (unlike in the Western Arctic where we move to “Herschel Time”) with morning (7:30 am) and evening (7:00 pm) “sched.” – a radio communication for all of the remote camps with the logistics coordinators at the Polar Continental Shelf Programme Headquarters in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

“Hello 26, this is Alexandra Fjord, we hear you 5 by 5, all is well and we have no traffic”.


Breakfast times are a chance to catch up with the research crew, analyze our last night’s dreams with the “Dream book” or learn an Inuktitut phrase such as ‘would you like some coffee’? ᑳᐱᑐᕈᒪᕖᑦ? It is also a chance to chat about field research progress and to plan the days and the science with the team. After breakfast and packing it is out to the field – Cassiope, Dryas, Willow, Sax Opp, Fert, or far away Dome are the field sites that one could be heading off to. Or maybe it is a hike farther afield to the glacier or up the fjord valley hill-slopes.


When you are on Team Drone, the packing takes a bit longer and the backpacks are a fair bit heavier with drones, sensors, calibration panels, many batteries, water bottles… and of course lunch! But once you get out there (which often doesn’t take long), and the weather is good, then it’s drones in the air. Drones can be a bit challenging in the High Arctic, only a few hundred km from the magnetic North pole, but more on that in another blog post. We were pretty surprised by how well the data collection went given the potential pitfalls of drone work in this far north, from GPS to weather challenges. All and all it was an incredibly productive trip with over 600 GB of drone data collected!


By the middle of the day, you are getting hungry. Time to eat your sandwich and share your daily chocolate bar – will it be a Mars Bar, Twix, Kit Kat or Coffee Crisp? The views are always stunning whichever way you look as you lunch and the skies are always changing. This summer we had a celestial encounter with a massive fireball exploding over the fjord – to find out more check out Jeff’s account of the meteor (in prep!). And if you read the media reports they say that “nobody saw it”, but we did or some of us did!!!


Once the fieldwork is done and the sun is moving lower in the sky and towards the North it is time to pack up the drone gear and head back to camp. On the way back to our Arctic home of white-painted wooden RCMP buildings you might chance to see an Arctic hare or our fjord companion the Arctic fox. When you get back to camp you can drop the bags, enjoy the views out across the water and head inside to start some metadata recording and to back up all the drone imagery as the dinner preparations progress.


After sched., a leisurely dinner, dishes and once the data are all backed up it could be time for an epic game of Boggle where, if you can’t find actual words, feel free to write down potential new ones like:

Bant (noun) – One unit of banter. e.g., “I met Isla out on the tundra and we had a quick bant before getting back to work”.

Murl (verb) – To spit out one’s tooth paste, but in such a way as there is no spitting involved. Somewhat similar to hurling up your tooth paste, but less active. “We gathered around the slop pit to murl before heading to bed.” (Jeff here: Turns out Murl IS a word. We were close to the correct definition. I want my points!)

Besides, the polar bear ate sections L to M of the dictionary, so if your word starts with any of those letters, no one can prove that your word isn’t real!


After murling, enjoying the midnight rays of the sun glancing off the water, and getting ready for bed, the last person has to bar the door with the long plank. Up at Alex Fjord, we are staying in polar bear country and at all times one needs to be aware that we could get a visit from the year-round, white and fluffy inhabitants of this part of the Arctic. The RCMP buildings get annual winter visits from the local bear who has left his nose and paw prints on the windows and walls.


The end of the day is closing your eyes with the golden light washing over you from the windows, wishing you could stay up longer, but knowing that 7:30am sched. is just a few short hours away.


From the ground to the sky: fieldwork in Kluane

Roaming the common garden

Over the last five years, the common garden in Kluane has allowed us to collect data on the growth of different willow species from across Canada. This experiment enables us to better understand how plants grow in a warmer climate. Over the start of this summer, which has been particularly hot in Kluane, we have continued smothering our plants with love by fertilizing and watering them so they would allow us to take all sorts of measurements on them – including phenology, new growth, leaf length and canopy height.

At the moment, one Salix richardsonii individual is the tallest plant in the garden at 156 cm, which makes it the king or queen of the (Arctic) jungle! We will be back in August though so there is still time for other plants to have a go at dethroning it. A close-up view of our willows is spectacular, but I have to say that looking up every once in a while from callipers and measuring tapes and seeing the majestic mountains surrounding Kluane lake does not get old – this is truly is a magical place.

By Mariana

Climbing up mountains

Behind our experiment at the shores of Kluane Lake rise the mountains that gives us a chance to step, in just a few hours, into the tundra. Aside from the abundance of shrubs, grasses and beautiful alpine flowers that are our primary attraction to these climes, we have also over the last few years been helping Anna Hargreaves to examine patterns of herbivory. Laying out seeds and cages, we keep an eye out for critters and flutters, picking and scratching, and most often of all, the scraping of teeth and piles of poo that signify a small mammal has found our caches. This year we have added fake caterpillars to expand the repertoire of munching mementos. All went well with putting out the seeds, though it turned out the fake caterpillars were hard to work with in the summer heat! But we managed. Either way, the birds didn’t seem overly keen – only one, maybe three, caterpillars got pecked. Whatever the task, it hardly matters once atop the mountains: the views are reliably beautiful!

To find out more:

Hargreaves, A., Suarez, E., Mehltreter, K., Myers-Smith, I., Vanderplank, S.E., Slinn, H.L., Vargas-Rodriguez, Y.L., Haeussler, S., David, S., Munoz, J. and Almazan-Nunoz, R.C., 2018. Seed predation increases from the Arctic to the Equator and from high to low elevations. bioRxiv, p.304634.

By Gergana (and Haydn)

Flying drones

Drones! We still have them, none have broken yet. The main task of our test flights while in Kluane was adding the Sequoia multi-spec sensor to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro (editor’s note: for non-drone folks I think that means ‘added a cool camera to a mini helicopter’). The flights were a success with slight glitches that have been corrected by now. The only casualty during our flight operations were my ankles which were not properly protected from the mosquitoes during the first flight at dusk. If anything it was a proper introduction to the bugs that we’ll face while on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island. Once all flights were completed, we carried five gallon buckets from the lake to water the community garden through herds of black flies.

Yes, I was sore the next morning.

By Noah

Exploring – from the ground to the sky!

In between measuring leaves, counting seeds and flying drones, we also got to explore the icefields near Kluane – a magical experience! Our favourites included the super high mountains, the rich turquoise colour of the little pools among the ice, and just the all around grandeur of the place. Majestical, as the movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople would put it.

We continued the Team Shrub tradition of a barefoot icefield run – refreshingly brisque! It was quite the contrast to feel the heat of the sun and the chill of the ice at the same time.

We are now off to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island for the next, longer stretch of our field season! In less than two hours, us and many boxes are scheduled to depart for Qikiqtaruk. Oh the adventure that lies ahead…we can’t wait!

By Gergana, Mariana and Noah


Running any field experiment can be a gamble.

Running a field experiment four thousand miles from your office, by the side of an alpine lake, set in great tracts of boreal forest in the north of Canada…that is bordering on foolishness.

For the past five years we have been propagating tundra willows in a warmer home. Plucked from icy mountainsides and wind-swept islands, these hardy plants have been relocated to the relative comfort of Kluane Lake, around 8°C warmer than their mother land. The speed at which they have been growing, and the differences across source sites, tells us a lot about how climate change could transform the tundra.

Of course, one problem with studying the effects on climate change is that, well, the climate changes.

This spring, and now on into the summer the rain did not fall.

The common garden experiment this spring

Five years on from their first shoots appearing, many of our tundra willows are not coping well with the heat and the drought. Beasts of Kluane Lake that have put on over a metre of new growth in past years, are this year skeletons, long limbs lying cracked and brown in the heat. And yet other species are soaking up the sun and the heat like tourists abroad. Our field correspondant, Gergana Daskalova, reports:

“The garden looked very different compared to last year! The pulchras are not taking the heat well – the really big willows have lost all their big branches and just have new shoots coming up the bottom now. Richardsonii growing strong though! There were signs of drought damage all around…we will continue watering.”

Here we have “Izzy Rich”, the garden bed named after our 2017 field assistant Izzy!

Perhaps our gamble will still pay off after all. We already have many years of great data, and many willows still alive (for now). And of course, this is itself great data: climate change may help tundra shrubs grow fast and tall – but extreme events could finish many of them off. As with so many questions of science, the excitement is in the discovery.

Meanwhile, a huge thanks to this years’ field team, and particularly to Sian and Lance at Kluane Lake for all your watering.

And now I’m off to check the bookie’s odds for rain.

CG1 2.jpg

By Haydn

From West to East and Northwards to Ellesmere Island

It a really really long way from the Eastern to the Western Arctic. Via scheduled commercial routes, it would take me over three days of plane flights in a row to get from my one field site to the other this summer – I will not be trying it all in one go. Two days and over 14 hours of flying over six legs… and I am only as far north as the town of Resolute – still a stop away from the final three-hour charter flight out to Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island. This must be the farthest I have ever traveled only just making it out of one time zone, pretty much straight north from Ottawa to Resolute.

My travels from west to east to north across Canada to the High Arctic.

It is a long way to come for this field season in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. After the different parts of Team Shrub briefly united and then parted again in Vancouver, we are now separated by over a thousand kilometers on either site of the Canadian Arctic. PhD student Jakob, stayed back in Europe the far, far north of Europe and has just landed on Svalbard! So, why divide forces this year to send drone and plant research teams to three different parts of the Arctic – Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Yukon, Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut and Svalbard in Norway?

At a DEW (Distant Early Warning) line site! The DEW line connects the Arctic from West to East every 100 miles. Previously, we’ve seen some of its radar stations at Komakuk and Shingle Point near Qikiqtaruk!

This year on Team Shrub, we’re working to capture a biome-wide perspective on the question of what is causing the tundra greening as seen from satellites and how representative our long-term monitoring records are of vegetation change across the landscape as a whole. In addition to trying to unpick this biome-wide perspective on tundra greening, we want to understand the tundra browning side of the question too, and are continuing to capture the rates of permafrost thaw and coastal erosion. Here, on Team Ellesmere, my colleague Jeff Kerby from Dartmouth College and I are headed out to join the research group of Greg Henry from the University of British Columbia at Greg’s long-term ecological research site informally known as ‘Alex’. So, that’s why we’re headed – northeast (though west from Scotland still!) to the Eastern Canadian Arctic.

Sea ice along the Northwest passage – beautiful views along our flight!

Funded by the NERC UK-Canada Arctic Bursary Programme, the Royal Geographical Society, some gear from Jeff’s last National Geographic Society grant and with support from the Polar Continental Shelf Program, we’re equipped with three multicopter platforms and two fixed-wing platforms for each of the Yukon and Ellesmere Teams and a new thermal camera and RedEdge sensor from Micasense that literally arrived at the very last minute! Thanks to Emily at Micasense, Sandy from the UBC Geography Department and Cassandra for getting us that last piece of equipment! We are now poised to take off with our drones and capture the landscape perspective on tundra responses to climate change. That is if our drones aren’t too concerned about being this far North and much closer to the magnetic North Pole.

Even in really far away places, you can still spot human influences in the Arctic – if you look closely in the bottom right corner, you can spot barrels of fuel.

Being in a new part of the Arctic is a bit of a strange feeling. To feel somewhat at home in a place that I have never been to before, but also to feel the culture shock of a superficially similar, yet actually quite different environment to the places that I have been going each summer for fieldwork for the past decade or so. As I airport-hop up from Ottawa to Resolute via Iqaluit, Hall Beach, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay here are a few of the similarities and differences that stand out.

Sea ice and low growing vegetation – the Arctic views we are familiar with from our previous work in the West.

Here, in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, the airports look much the same. The commercial airline companies are different; First Air instead of Air North, but the charter company is still the familiar black and red twin otters of Ken Borek – here there is no subsidiary of Aklak Air though. One surprise for me is the 3G connectivity in the different Arctic communities – we could check up on the World Cup scores as we head North! Sad loss for England though.

Pond Inlet – a hamlet in Nunavut with lovely mountains as the backdrop.

There is Inuktitut spoken all around, which is both so similar in sound and somewhat different to Inuvialuktun, the language of the Western Arctic. To illustrate the similarities, umingmak versus umingmuk are the words for Muskox in the two languages for example. The villages have a similar feel and people are really friendly, but the views out the plane window are surprisingly different.

Murray the muskox – a wildlife encounter from our 2016 field season on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island.

The glacial history of the Eastern Arctic is unmistakable even to the eyes of an ecologist! Large striations and scrapes of the ice sheet are still visible everywhere you look. There are exposed and weather beaten hills and dramatic carved out fjords. Here, even though it is the second week of July, there are snow patches on land and sea ice in the water, and with white clouds above – the color pallet is more white and brown than green like out West.

Shades of brown still dominate the Arctic landscape in the East – the colder temperatures make for a later summer arrival.

There is no majestic Mackenzie River, no flat Yukon North Slope stretching as far as the eye can see and no trees dotting the landscape like just north of Inuvik. Here, the tundra vegetation appears more barren, eking out an existence on the exposed and windblown slopes. But, I have already seen some happy looking Salix arctic – the circumArctic willow species – and yellow Arctic poppy flowers blowing in the breeze, which makes me feel right at home!

During our (hopefully) only full day of logistics here in Resolute, we unpacked and packed our bags, roamed the loading bay finding research equipment from days of yore. Last summer in 2017, Jeff was headed on an epic nine-day trip from Qikiqtaruk all the way to the Yamal peninsula in Siberia to collaborate with polymath of the North, Bruce Forbes. This year we blew off the thick layer of dust on boxes of field equipment belonging to the very same Arctic researcher from many moons ago.

So much in Arctic fieldwork is about boxes – we pack, unpack, transport, from one end of the world to the other, in the pursuit of knowledge. Fun to find boxes of field researchers who have come before us!

Tomorrow morning first thing, if the weather cooperates, we are heading on a 2.5-hour flight north and east off to Alexandra Fjord and out of internet connectivity. On the very same day on the other side of the Canadian Arctic, Team Qikiqtaruk will be flying off from Inuvik to the island. And, Jakob is already up there at 78 degrees North on Svalbard. Three sites, seven field researchers, 16 drones will hopefully turn into terabytes of data to help us understand what is going on as tundra ecosystems warm.

Small airplanes and a dusty airstrip – a common start to Arctic adventures!

From west to east, the legacy of Pleistocene ice scrapes a green to brown palette, colors that dominate this year’s collaborative research efforts. From one Arctic field site in 2016, to two in 2017 and now in 2018 three! Team Shrub is expanding, just like the tundra shrubs. And we are just a part of the picture. After this summer, we will be able to scale up our ecological findings to sites across the tundra biome using data from the 20 sites spanning 7 Arctic nations of the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network. But first we all need to get out to our research sites!

By Isla and Jeff