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.
On a cold and distant island the stars of our science are sleeping. Buried under a thick winter blanket, Qikiqtaruk in winter is exactly what many people imagine when I say I work in the Arctic: awash with snowdrifts, locked in sea ice, home for polar bears and not a huge amount else.
Yet here on Team Shrub we study plants. Come the summer sun, green tendrils of life emerge from the snow and the hardy, beautiful and fascinating plant life of the tundra begins to grow. Diverse in the manner of tropical rainforests it may not be, but these cold lands are nonetheless brimming with more life than you might think, featuring old favourites that adorn the hills of Scotland to wacky monstrosities that seem to spring out of some primeval past.
In this series we will be exploring some of our favourite species from our most northern field site, starting with our namesake: the shrubs.
What makes a shrub? Such has been the dinnertime conversation at many a Scottish Feast. In short: short. Woody. Multi-stemmed. Sometimes evergreen, sometimes deciduous, always beautiful.
Qikiqtaruk is home to a grand total of nine willow species. Not bad for an isolated Arctic island. The Salix genus dominates much of the upper shin-high canopy, though you can find yourself wading through some of the bigger fellows. Bjorn even reaches chest height. Deciduous, green-leaved, the willows add a certain magic to the tundra as their fluffy seed spirals in the air on a breezy day, while bright red catkins dot the tundra floor underfoot.
Possibly our favourite shrub on the island. This beautiful willow surely lives up to its name: long ruby stems and startling emerald-bright diamond leaves, giving Salix pulchra its common name, diamond-leaf willow. On Qikiqtaruk Salix pulchra grows mostly along the ground in large, clonal mats that creep between tussocks of cottongrass and shelter small white Stellaria flowers. It’s one to watch though, as further south this willow can reach well over head height. Here, where the weather is sheltered and nutrients seep from the permafrost, Salix pulchra grows faster, bigger, redder, standing out from its neighbours atop the palsas, while on the hilltops we have already seen a tripling in its canopy height since we first started recording in 1999.
One of the giants of Qikiqtaruk, Salix richardsonii, or Richardson’s willow, is the most common tall shrub on the island. It grows mostly in wetter, sheltered areas such as river floodplains, where nutrients flow freely and life is as easy as it gets in this bastion of land in the Arctic ocean. Forming a dense, shrubby canopy of bright green leaves, Salix richardsonii nonetheless has a rather grizzled visage, giving it our nickname ‘Old Man Willow’. Twisted branches and flaking orange-brown bark, flecked with white specks of age or hardship. Fat, hairy stipules easily mark it apart from other willows. A canopy bully, Salix richardsonii is now dominating areas where it can grow, rapidly expanding in many parts of the island as the climate warms.
This small willow is a remarkable example of the success and resilience of plants in these cold lands. Salix arctica, the Arctic willow, has the most northernmost geographic range of any woody plant, reaching all the way to the north coast of Greenland at 83 degrees north. A ground-hugging, prostrate woody shrub, it spreads woody limbs akimbo, stretching out in all directions along the top of the permafrost. Thin stems become roots, become stems again and it advances clonally, covering much of the surface until it is impossible to tell where one plant begins and another ends. Even if the main “trunk” is destroyed or decays, the plant will not die: an attempt at immortality. Unlike many of the other dwarf willows, Salix arctica eschews the small leaves and catkins of its fellow family members, and sticks to the strategy of the taller shrubs that bigger is better. Big, fat leaves emerge from the brittle stems, which giant fluffy catkins can strike up from the ground surface several times taller than the rest of the plant. Unusually, on Qikiqtaruk even the leaves and stems of Salix arctica strike upwards for the sky, possibly a hybridisation of one kind or another, and can stretch up even as much as 20cm from the soil.
Just like Salix arctica, this dwarf willow hugs the floor with brittle stems and clonal creeping growth in all directions. The thick, leathery leaves of this plant give it its common name: net-leaved willow, which are criss-crossed and pocked with deep grooves. Once fallen in winter, these hardy leaves last, resisting decomposition and creating a crunching carpet underfoot.
Salix polaris and Salix phlebophylla
The smallest of Qikiqtaruk’s willows, these two species take you down onto hands and knees to appreciate their tiny round leaves and stalk-like stems. Hugging the ground in dense mats, often on the drier sections of hillsides or edges of tussocks, I often have trouble telling these apart from leaves alone. Yet catch them right in the season, and the red catkins of the polar willow (Salix polaris) stand out as one of the brightest flashes of red on the tundra, flecks of delicate colour, blood-rich, that in a matter of days dissolve into white and wind.
Salix glauca and Salix niphoclada
Two of the rarer tall shrubs on Qikiqtaruk, grey willow (Salix glauca) and snow willow (Salix niphoclada) can be a challenge to find, but occasionally stand out on the hillside where some seed has found its way to establishing. The grey-tinged haze of glauca willows sets them apart from the rest, while the sometimes rose-tinged stems and somewhat brighter leaves of niphoclada can cause us headaches when we search for Salix pulchra to sample. These two willows with green leaves covered in fine grey hairs and stems with a blue-green and waxy look to them can be indistinguishable when they have no visible catkins, which is much of the time, so they are often clumped together in our analyses.
Finally, the Goliath of Arctic willows. Salix alaxensis grows tall and often somewhat spindly up on Qikiqtaruk, almost buddleia-like, as if it wants to reach the sun and doesn’t care how it gets there. The leaves are grey-green, but a bright, fluffy white underneath – lannate, densely villous or tomentose if you will. Did you know there are over 20 botanical terms for being hairy! Certainly easy to identify. We have only recently discovered Salix alaxensis, the Alaskan willow, on Qikiqtaruk, though since individuals are already well established, thus it must have been evading detection for many decades.
Betula nana and Betula glandulosa
If you spend much of your time tramping about the high hilltops of Scotland you may already be familiar with dwarf birch. Small, thickety and brittle, the dense brown stems of Betula nana orBetula glandulosa have snagged many a bootlace and tripped many a toe. Still, I love the Betulas for their leaves alone, some of the most perfect forms on the tundra. On Qikiqtaruk, Betula nana holds sway on flatter patches of hilltop; a low growing shrub that announces its presence as a darker green blur on the landscape, or from the waft of crushed Labrador teaunderfoot, which tends to grow alongside birch. Unlike many other tundra sites, where Betula has run rampant as the climate warms, it so far seems to be losing out to the willows here, though in some places the dense, spotted branches form an impenetrable tangle across whole swathes of tundra. As for the difference between nana and glandulosa, the latter is taller, larger leaved, greater noduled. Or not, as the case may be – perhaps they are one species after all, marked apart not by genetics but simply variation.
A hero of the Arctic smellscape, Rhododendron tomentosumis another favourite of ours. The shrub itself is part beautiful: white flowering baubles full of rich scent, rusted felt underside of leaves, and part ugly: the ash-black branches spindly, frail and commonly dead, dark leaves often matted and speckled, a formless shape creeping amongst better rivals. But altogether outstanding are the leaves themselves. Rhododendron tomentosum, marsh Labrador tea, may not quite have the glamour of its more grandiose and much less marshy southern cousin, but its leaves still bear the scent of a thousand tundra days; that unmistakable and uncapturable spice of terpene and midnight chlorophyll. This is a shrub that makes trait work bearable, and often one that prompts a pocket full of leaves for the walk home.
The berry bearers
Arctostaphylos rubra (Arctous rubra)
One for the photo albums. A. rubra, or bearberry, is certainly one of the more iconic tundra shrubs due to its bright, Rudolph-red leaves that can stain the bare tundra at certain times of year. Another prostrate-growing shrub, the ovate, vein-y leaves can bear a resemblance to the leather coins of Salix reticulata when green, though are stretched and less waxy. It is when the winter begins to draw in that Arctostaphylos rubra sets itself apart as the leaves turn, and formerly invisible patches of bearberry shine out. Red too, the berries that hide in amongst the leaves: a food source for humans and wildlife alike, though their diuretic properties also lend themselves to herbal medicines and may explain the preponderance of stained bear poo littering the tundra in autumn. A closely related species, Arctous alpina, looks almost identical except for the red berries that turn black when ripe.
Vaccinium vitis-idea and Vaccinium uliginosum
Another set of plants that will be well known to hillwalkers, the Vaccinium genus is the main fruit bearer for local people and hungry researchers. The smallest, Vaccinium vitis-idea (Ligonberry, cranberry, cowberry – you name it!), carpets the surface with tiny, glossy leaves and even glossier red berries where cover is sparse and soils fairly dry. In places the leaves can turn to a deep, merlot red, or still drip with pink-white cowbell flowers. Harder to find on Qikiqtaruk, Vaccinium uliginosum (blueberry, bilberry etc.) rise higher from the undergrowth where soils are wetter, their berries blue, stems tough brown-green and leaves thinner and more leathery.
Cloudberry, baked apple, or knotberry in England and averin in Scotland is best known on Qikiqtaruk as aqpik. This is one of the most prized of berries in this part of the world and when perfectly ripe is a delicious topping to pancakes, makes an excellent jam or is the perfect snack when stopping across the tundra. Quick to turn from unripe to rotten, finding your patch of cloudberries in season on Qikiqtaruk can be a challenge. It is rare out there, preferring the wetter habitats on the edges of ponds or in ice-wedge terrain.
A heathery-looking dwarf shrub that is equally at home in the Scottish Highlands, on mountaintops around the northern hemisphere, under conifer canopies of the boreal forest, and in vast swathes of tundra. Also a clonal shrub, Empetrum nigrum can form dense mats stretching uninterruptedly for meters, or even tens of meters. Its super-power is allelopathy: the leaves contain toxic chemicals which, when leached into the ground after the rain, hinder germination or growth of other plant species. Fun fact: the wood smells delicious when boiled in water (don’t ask, and probably don’t drink).
The dwarf evergreens
The spear shaped leaves of the mountain avens is to me another iconic shape of the tundra. Whether forming into a sharp coniferous tip, or padded out into the more billowy, deciduous-tree form of Dryas octopetala, these OS map symbols of leaves are unrecognisable wherever they grow. But for many, Dryas integrifolia is best known for its flowers – the perfect white circles that polka-dot the tundra floor – and for the twisted filaments that are the phoenix seedhead, catching the sunrays and diffracting light and themselves across the tundra air.
Growing amongst the rocks and along the dry hillsides, the weeping white bells of Arctic bell heather are another distinctive site at the height of a tundra summer. A relative of the glorious purple heather of the Scottish hills, Cassiope tetragona is similarly small and woody, minute spear-shaped leaves wrapped tight into the stem, forming scaly round limbs. As the season turns, these stems gradually shift from green to orange-brown, giving the tundra an almost burnt look, flowers rusting away to leave the brittle seed heads proud to the wind.
Bonus: The uncategorised
If you’ve reached this far, well done for getting to the end. As a special bonus, I’ve included Silene acaulis, better known as moss campion. There is some confusion here as to whether Silene acaulis is best classed as a shrub or a forb. Silene as a genus refers to the campions, delicate flowers of field and rocks, all pink and white and herbaceous green leaves. Yet the harsher climates to which Silene acaulis has adapted produces a hardy, cushion-like shrub, past leaves compressed into woody stems. For myself, I class this bright plant as a forb, yet since I have seen it classed otherwise so under some schemes, it is worth a brief mention here.
Beyond confusion of classification, Silene acaulis is by no means one to be relegated to the bottom of any list. It grows where often nothing else will, building a bivouac out of its own sharp leaves against the elements. Within this thick shell, the plant can grow to engulf surrounding rocks occasionally supporting other tiny plants as they grow through chinks in its armour. Most spectacular are the pink-purple flowers, which at the height of the summer dot these minuscule mountains like dewdrops, or like pins in a pin-cushion. Silene acaulis is rare on Qikiqtaruk – the soft, undulating landscape means there are few surfaces too harsh for competitors. But I have seen one once, in passing, making a mental note to come back to sample it later. I have never found one since.
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.
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)?
Just another summer’s day in the tundra
How to mend a broken sole
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Best talk of today goes to @annebeejay. Amazing photos, excellent story about change in tundras and a very enthusiastic speaker #EAB2017
#EAB2017 Workshops done! Quite amazed by the work of the @our_codingclub seems they've found a very nice working system for students of all degrees to find and give support in coding! Nice work really!
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 1, day 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?
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 Sloan, Archie 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.
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.
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.
Jennifer Baltzer of @forestecogrp finds that site moisture conditions are the most important factor determining black spruce abundance in the boreal forest (through a range of direct and indirect mechanisms). 🌲🔥🌱🔥🌳 🌲🔥🌱💧🌲#ArcticChange2017
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.
Isla giving her talk
Arctic friendships! Chanda and I met in Inuvik, then at ArcticNet in Winnipeg, then again!
Cameron Eckert, our favourite Yukon biologist, (gently) quizzing Jakob on his poster
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!
The second day of Arctic Change 2017 hit town like the snow storm raging outside the Centre des congrès de Québec. Today the main hall was full, packed right to the edges, as we were welcomed by ArcticNet, Laval University and the Inuit Circumpolar Council.
After the welcome and official opening, Raleigh Seamster from Google Earth, and Joel Heath and Lucassie Arragutainaq from ArcticEider/SIKU demonstrated the power of remote sensing and its potential for community based environmental monitoring in the Arctic. The speakers clearly had to battle the inquisitiveness of researchers as hundreds reached straight for their laptops and phones to immediately check out these awesome tools! Louis Frontier, scientific director of ArcticNet, followed with a reminder that cutting carbon emissions remains paramount for tackling all issues around Climate Change. Anyone not from Norway or Paraguay might have left feeling a little bruised, but despite the world being only 5% of the way towards its renewable goals, there was still a sense of optimism. And indeed, the plenary closed with optimism in full swing with a touching short film on the Schools on Board project of the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen and the potential future leaders of Arctic policy change.
Refreshed after heaps of pastries and coffee, the conference headed into the first topical sessions. Alas, we can barely scratch the surface of the vast array of talks on offer here. Justine Hudson method’s of assessing Hudson’s Bay’s beluga whale stress level using snot samples was much discussed on twitter and made an engaging talk with videos of curious belugas “donating” their snot to science. Memorable also were Benjamin Lange’s findings that multiyear sea-ice supports much more algae life than first year ice. We on Team Shrub appreciated hearing about Zoe Panchen’s research on tundra plant phenology showing that microclimate matters more than latitude or elevation for flowering in the Canadian High Arctic. And Team Shrub was also a fan of Esther Frei’s work on plant trait change over time and her beautiful figures! We also really liked pondering future fox housing using Florence Poulin’s new index of Arctic fox den vulnerability.
The scientific part of the day concluded with the first poster session, with legions of well designed posters (every conference should have such a great reward for poster awesomeness!) and an astonishing amount of great science. Ruminating in front of our fake log fire we remember Jeffery Saarela and Paul Sokoloff’s enthusiastic poster presentation – working with the Canadian’s Museum of Nature, they are sampling plants all across the Arctic islands to improve our understanding of high Arctic biodiversity. Also sticking out was Sarah Shakil’s poster on chemical composition of slump discharge on the Peal Plateau in the Yukon and Christine Anderson’s beautiful poster about her exciting proposed PhD research on shorebirds in a changing Arctic.
Let shrubs take you back in time to battles beneath the ground. Sandra and her beautiful poster
Jakob stoked about presenting tundra phenology change.
Now we are all tired from a long day of sciencing, talking at our posters, braving the still raging blizzard and running away from snow-spitting Quebecois snow ploughs on our way home to the apartment. After two exciting days, we’re looking forward the great Arctic science to come and take up Allen Pope’s challenge to kick him off the top of the twitter leader board. So keep your twitter ears pricked and see you tomorrow!
Phenology Today A semi-weekly periodical about the reproductive lives and growth of tundra plants on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.
A lone white petal on a Dryas (mountain avens) flower resists today’s wind, keeping its status as the last remaining open flower in our phenology plots. An increasing trend of flower seed heads, made up of intricately twisting filaments, can be observed across all sites. Arctic willows continue to grow, but no seed catkins have open yet to reveal their fluffy seed.
The breeze stirs up the gossip among the grasses: who is reproducing, when and where? What will today bring for phenology on Qikiqtaruk? Providing you with all the latest updates on flower blooming, plant growth, seed dispersal and all things phenology, this is Phenology Today!
On the 5th July 70 Dryas flowers fill a single 1x1m plot. Eleven days later, only 4 remain. Summer comes and goes quickly in the Arctic. By the time this news reaches you, there might not be any white Dryas blossoms left – all replaced by twisting seed heads. No seed heads have unfurled so far, and we have yet to record Dryas seed dispersal. But certainly, with the inevitable passing of time, dispersal will happen. After all, winter is coming…
Isla’s arrival marks the resolution of a month-long quest to quantify the level of fluffiness of Eriophorum (cottongrass) flowers. Precisely when does fluffiness start to decrease? It will signify the end, the end of the flowering period and beginning of seed dispersal. Gergana and Isla have visited all phenology plots, and in a shocking twist of events, we now report that some flowers are fluffier than initially perceived by Gergana. More seed dispersal is bound to happen soon. Until then, we shall be standing by continuing to measure leaf length, waiting for the incessant winds to start carrying off Eriophorum seeds.
How high will the grass species, Arctagrostis latifolia, grow? We visit twice a week, reveal ing a whooping maximum height of 43.1cm so far this year! That’s tall! There is pollen visible on some flowers, but for now grass seed dispersal seems to be a distant future that we can only but imagine.
Around this time last year Team Shrub was wishing upon willow flowers to bring good weather to both blow away the mosquitos and hasten the arrival of the second half of our crew. Today, very few willow catkins have released their fluffy seeds into the wind in the phenology plots, hindering wish making. The willows are still steadily growing though, surprising us with larger and larger lengths of new stem growth. How much will they grow this year? Only time can tell.
Thanks to a team effort in eating small pots of yoghurts, we have successfully manufactured new radiation shields for the iButtons on the phenology plots. What can temperature sensors, ground observations and drones tell us about phenological changes? Check out the ShrubTundra project to find out more.
This is Team Drone reporting for Phenology Today from Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. And remember, you heard it here first.
It’s a hot day. The sun is beating down on the damp ground, freshly cleared of melted snow, and beneath the wet surface the ice begins to retreat.
Nothing too unusual, except that it’s the middle of April, and our field site is an island off the Arctic coast of Canada. Thirty years or so previously things would still have been buried under a thick blanket of winter snow, but as the Arctic heats up, spring is advancing.
All big questions, all with big consequences for the shape and colour, the sights and smells, the ebb and flow of life for plants, animals and people alike in these cold northern lands. We are faced with one big problem though: come the spring, there’s no-one yet around to measure anything.
But, to butcher a quote, we have a cunning plan. Three, in fact.
1. Eyes in the sky
While we may still be enjoying the cherry blossom on the Meadows and the blustery showers blowing in from the North Sea in April, our field sites are still being watched from above. Satellites give us a great deal of information, all year round, that we can use to track the timing of life (phenology) across the Arctic.
One approach is to use the ‘normalised difference vegetation index’ (or NDVI for short) to measure the ‘greenness’ of the landscape as the spring unfolds. That works well enough, but the resolution is coarse, and clouds are causing a lot of trouble (no data) particularly in the cloudy summers of the Arctic.
Part of our research aims to link satellite data with ground-based observations. We do this using drones to collect high-resolution imagery and NDVI measurements at the landscape level: ‘bridging the gap’ between coarse resolution images from space, and very detailed monitoring data from small-scale vegetation plots. This way we get a much better understanding of what is going on when we’re not at our field sites, and at all the other places around the Arctic we will never get the chance to visit.
When it comes to phenology, we are incredibly lucky to be able to collaborate with Yukon Parks rangers on Qikiqtaruk – folks who not only welcome us to their lands each summer, but provide insight into the changes in the tundra in ways we never could. Three times each week from late April to early September, every year since 2001, the rangers make the half an hour hike up to sets of long-term monitoring plots to record life stages in three tundra species. They diligently record when their first leaves appear, when they flower, and when they die. Overall, this is one of the longest continuous phenology monitoring datasets in the tundra!
With data like this, we can track how plants are responding to change in much more detail. We can also compare different species: are there winners and losers? And we have the data to link things across scale: the information to build the bridge up from individual plants to the whole biome.
3. Fly on the wall
It’s never going to pull in the TV audiences of Big Brother, but a bunch of 24 hour cameras trained on Arctic plants really floats our boat. Last year we installed a couple of phenocams – basically time-lapse cameras – to track in more detail how plant communities are changing over the growing season.
This year we were fortunate enough to secure some additional funding from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) to expand the project. Hugely exciting for us, we will now be able to track vegetation communities across the island, scaling up our findings from the long-term monitoring plots to the landscape scale.
Even more exciting, we are using the cameras to link differences in phenology across the Arctic through our ‘common garden’ experiment in the south of the Yukon. Here we have planted willows collected from across the Yukon to examine whether different populations will respond to change in different ways. One of the biggest differences we have seen so far is that northern populations seem to stick to their ‘home’ growing season: they leaf out late and senesce early compared to southern individuals of the same species growing just 50cm away.
Southern Salix richardsonoo
Northern Salix richardsonoo
Does the difference in senescence timing explain the difference in growth in these two willows? Willows are of the same species, collected as cuttings in 2013 from a southern tundra site (left) and northern tundra site (right).
At present we can only track phenology changes in the garden thanks to input from more wonderful collaborators – Sian Williams and the folks from Icefield Discovery working down at Kluane Lake. With our new phenocams we can for the first time track differences in phenology over the whole year, not just in our experiment, but at the sites where willows were collected! We think this is the last piece in the puzzle to be able to answer exactly what is going on – whether willows have responded to new conditions, or whether their genes mean that old habits die hard. Our phenocams in the common garden are now installed, and we’ll be installing the remainder at our remote field sites as soon as the summer expeditions get underway. Watch this space!
Haydn is the recipient of a DudleyStamp Memorial Award on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
This week on Team Shrub we are focusing entirely on one aspect of change in the tundra: phenology.
What is phenology?
Phenology (or “fun-ology” as my wife calls it) is, to put it simply, when things happen. It is the timing of life events.
As a PhD student, gazing out of the office window instead of writing up my thesis, phenology is what keeps the view interesting – when the leaves appear in spring, when the birds hatch, when the berries appear on my walk home, and when the trees turn auburn to mark the end of the year.
As a tundra ecologist, phenology offers a way to track the huge changes we are seeing as the Arctic warms. We track when things happen in our study ecosystems – when the snow melts, the leaf buds burst, the flowers appear, and the leaves begin to turn.
Monitoring the timing of life gives us a great deal of information that can shed light on how the tundra is changing, how fast, and what it might look like in the future.
For example, we can use phenology to see whether we are seeing an earlier spring, or longer growing seasons for tundra plants.
We can look at if plants can keep up with earlier snowmelt – and if the birds and the bees can keep up with the plants.
We can look at winners and losers: if some species respond to changes while others don’t, and if that tells us anything about community change in the tundra.
And we can look a little deeper still at whether phenology is somehow ingrained, tied to the genetics of an individual or a species, or whether it can respond to the rapid environmental changes going on in the Arctic.
What’s in store this week?
This week we have five posts focusing on the different ways we measure and monitor phenology at our field sites.
And finally Friday, the one I am most looking forward to, where we will hear from the Yukon Parks Rangers who visit our phenology plots over the whole ice-free season. Wait for it. It’s coming up and it’s really good. UPDATE: First, from ranger Ricky Joe – Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe. Soon we will hear from ranger Edward McLeod as well!
So settle in, reach for the popcorn, and get ready for a wild, wild week of science.