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

Shrub surveillance

One of my first tasks as the Kluane Research Assistant was to set up phenocams in the common garden experiment. Phenocams, or more generally time lapse cameras, take pictures every hour to create a video of what has happened over time. Differences in the timing of life events (phenology) – things like when leaves appear or die – are probably one of the biggest drivers of the difference in growth we are seeing between willow populations. With phenocams we can now track this throughout the whole year!

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Posts awaiting phenocams

My first step was to unbox them, which, I have to say was the most time consuming! I was to put up 12 cameras around the garden to monitor certain plots, with another one going to be put in a tree to get an aerial view.

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After all was unboxed, it was time for the set-up. The instructions were very clear and allowed for the cameras to be customized to our liking. I inputted the time and date and chose the name for each camera. This information will be displayed at the bottom of each picture when the whole video comes together. Being able to name each camera makes it very easy to differentiate between each camera, especially when we have so many! 

Once the set-ups for all cameras was complete, I headed over to the common garden to put them up. Team Drone, who stopped in Kluane earlier this summer, thankfully put up the posts where I was to attach the cameras. At first I wasn’t too sure how I’d be able to set them up but thankfully each camera came with a connecting band and clasp that I found was long and strong enough to attach each camera securely. The outcome looks pretty good and hopefully the final resulting images will too!

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Shrubs under 24 hour surveillance

By Izzy

Our phenocams were purchased thanks to a Dudley Stamp Memorial Award from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Phenology Today

Phenology Today
A semi-weekly periodical about the reproductive lives and growth of tundra plants on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island.

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The pretty white petals of Dryas integrifolia or mountain avens.

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…

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The elegant twisting filaments of Dryas integrifolia or mountain avens.

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.

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The fluffy flowers of Eriophorum vaginatum also known as cottongrass.

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.

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The sturdy Salix arctica (arctic willow) flower dispersing seeds.

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.

By Gergana and Isla

The turning of the seasons

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.

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Springtime in the great white north

One of the big questions we are trying to answer is how an earlier spring alters tundra plants. Are they flowering earlier? Does that mean growing seasons are longer? What about different species, do some do better than others? Are there knock-on effects for pollinators, birds, caribou? Can we predict how things will change in the future?

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.

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Qikiqtaruk locked up in sea ice this spring

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.

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Bridging the gap

2. Boots on the ground

One of our local breweries has recently started a series called ‘Advancement Through Collaboration‘, teaming up all sorts of different groups to create something new. We try to take the same approach to our own science, whether it is sharing data and ideas with other Arctic researchers around the world, or creating artwork out of shrub rings.

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!

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Checking up on the long-term phenology plots with Ricky-Joe and Sam

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.

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Gergana and Will collecting detailed growth and phenology measurements

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.

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A phenocam standing tall above the Arctic tundra on Qikiqtaruk

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.

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!

By Haydn

Haydn is the recipient of a Dudley Stamp Memorial Award on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Phenology Week

This week on Team Shrub we are focusing entirely on one aspect of change in the tundra: phenology.

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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.

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Why phenology?

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.

So settle in, reach for the popcorn, and get ready for a wild, wild week of science.

Haydn

Fieldwork Milestones

The icy waters that welcomed us to Qikiqtaruk are long gone – past are the beautiful sunsets with light reflecting off big chunks of ice, and instead we now see dark blue or grey waters and occasionally even beluga whales swimming by. It’s a great time of the summer, with some flowers still in bloom, while others are setting seeds. The sandpiper and plover chicks are growing up, and we have been spending lots of time out in the field – through sunshine, wind and fog, the data are rolling in!

Now that we have already celebrated our two week and three weekiversaries on the island and are approaching a month on the island, we thought we’d reflect on our fieldwork milestones so far!

21st June

We celebrated solstice by arriving on the island, checking out the vast expanse of sea ice in the water and exploring our home for the summer and all the breeding bird species with Park Biologist Cameron Eckert.

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1st July (Happy Canada Day!)

Canada Day dinner with the rangers – for some of us it was our first Canada Day ever and it was the big 150 this year, and we all had a great time sharing stories and enjoying a tasty feast on a day celebrating the confederation of peoples including all the original people of this vast country.

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2nd July

Wildlife sightings – some of our favourites include a herd of 25 caribou with calves, the four majestic muskoxen, a short-eared owl flying over camp, black guillemots riding the waves, waders dashing around on the spit, and belugas and bowheads off the cliffs from Collinson Head (14th July).

4th July (Happy Independence Day!)

Six new phenocams are all set up and hopefully well enough to resist any muskox encounters (none so far)! It will be great to see all the photos stitched together at the end of the season from May to August, thanks to the rangers setting things up for us before we arrived. The ongoing on-the-ground phenology observations have also been no less exciting, though they are a bit more of a pain to collect when the mosquitos are at their most ferocious like yesterday!

6th July

The first twisting of the filaments of the Dryas (mountain avens) in our phenology monitoring! We’ve also been counting how many flowers there are in each of the phenology plots and we are now past peak flower time – now there will be fewer and fewer pretty coloured flowers, but watching the Dryas seed heads develop and twist round and round and the fluffy flowers of the Eriophorum take flight is beautiful too!

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7th July

A Team Shrub record for largest area surveyed with drones in one day – 3,000,000 meters squared. We now have 193,735 images (as of 15th July) and counting for this field season so far. As soon as the winds die down the drones are out – with three pilots in the field, there has been lots of drone action – different drones, different scales of investigation, different spectral bands, which together will hopefully give us a comprehensive view of vegetation change across the tundra.

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8th July

Our first group photo (minus Isla who hasn’t arrived yet)! Team Drone surrounded by tundra flowers and arctic willows.

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10th July

A milestone in the making – surveying all of our sites with GNSS (a type of GPS system) – a super precise way to know exactly where all of our markers and plots are. Around a week ago, we met with representatives of Canada Parks and it was very cool to learn that they also use GNSS technology when mapping historical sites – always interesting to see how people use the same technology in different ways.

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11th July

Perhaps the most exciting milestone of all (at least for Isla): Isla has arrived!!!  I have finally made it to the island after five days of trying.  Finally, on Tuesday the 11th of July my float plane successfully touched down in Pauline Cove as a seal curiously watched on.  Most amazing of all was that the “freshies” the fresh fruit and vegetables that had been sitting in a hot plane for more than two days were actually for the most part fine and still as fresh and delicious as vegetables tend to be in the North.

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14th July (Happy Bastille Day!)

Another Team Shrub record of 50 drone flights in one day! And, the excitement of finding a two-way radio in the tundra, several days after it was last seen.

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15th July

Active layer depth has reached its highest value yet at 68cm this week! Strong winds delayed some of our initial drone flying, but there have been lots of ground observations made. The metal probe we’re using for the active layer depth measurements is also a pretty good walking pole! And when dragged along the ground sounds a bit like that noise from that horror movie “The Shining’.

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Every day

Awe-inspiring sunsets – Qikiqtaruk is beautiful at all times of the day, but the evening light makes it all extra special! There are also many ittle moments of beauty in the field – be it a particularly fluffy patch of cottongrass, backlight lupines, a family of ptarmigans walking by, or just the sheer grandeur of the landscape, it’s been great to stop during data collection for a second to take it all in.

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So at nearly one month in there are many milestones to go.  What will we see or experience next?  Only time will tell…

By Gergana, Isla and Team Drone