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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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!

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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!!!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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The Plants of Qikiqtaruk. Part 1: The Shrubs

On a cold and distant island the stars of our science are sleepingBuried 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.

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Qiqiktaruk in winter

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.

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.

The willows

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.

Salix pulchra

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.

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Salix pulchra leaves catching the sunlight. The beautiful willow is a Western Arctic specialist found across tussock tundra and mountain landscapes of the Yukon and Alaska.

Salix richardsonii

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.

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Encroaching Salix richardsoni is taking over the Ice Creek watershed on Qikiqtaruk. This is one of the tallest willows on the island and elsewhere in the Arctic where in can dominate tundra landscapes with dense, metres tall and sometimes impenetrable thickets of willows.

Salix arctica

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.

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Salix arctica the Arctic willow with flowers blooming in spring. This is one of the most widely distributed plants across the tundra biome found from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the very tip of Greenland.

Salix reticulata

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.

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The waxy leaves of the net-leaved willow, Salix reticulata. Like with Salix arctica, this is a very widely distributed willow found in much of the Arctic, the Alps and even in Scotland!

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.

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The bright red catkins, fluffy white seeds and verdant green leaves of Salix polaris often remind Isla of the colours of Christmas!
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The tiny 2 – 4 mm long leaves of Salix phlebophylla covering the ground in a mat. Named for the skeleton leaves it ‘leaves’ behind year after year, this is one of the smallest willows in the world!

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.

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Less majestic than Salix glauca in other parts of the Arctic, here on Qikiqtaruk this willow can only eek out an existence in the warmest microclimates of south-facing slopes.

Salix alaxensis

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.

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Isla with a particularly tall Salix alaxensis found on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2016 on a particularly buggy walk back from the retrogressive thaw slumps along the coast.

The birches

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 or Betula 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 tea underfoot, 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.

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A very dwarf birch, Betula nana/glandulosa – is it one species or two? – nestled amongst compatriots including Rhododendron tomentosum and Vaccinium vitis-idea (see below).

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Rhododendron tomentosum

A hero of the Arctic smellscape, Rhododendron tomentosum is 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.

 

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We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), Ledum (its old name), I got to get some!

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.

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The bright red leaves of Arctostaphylos rubra in the autumn intermixed with some Vaccinium uliginosum.
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Arctous alpina the black berries of alpine or ‘black’ bearberry.

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.

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Vaccinium vitis-idaea (and Empetrum nigrum). These Arctic cranberries make a delicious pie and jam if you have the patience to pick enough!

Rubus chamaemorus

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.

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The delicate salmon pink berries of ripe aqpik or cloudberry.

Empetrum nigrum

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).

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The bright leaves and black berries of Empetrum nigrum

The dwarf evergreens

Dryas integrifolia

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.

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The bright white flowers of Dryas integrifolia.
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Twisting filaments of Dryas integrifolia as the flowers set seed at the end of the summer.

Cassiope tetragona

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.

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Cassiope tetragona with four flower heads as per it’s name is one of the longest lived of tundra shrubs, with individuals being found that can be dated back to over 200 years.

Bonus: The uncategorised

Silene acaulis

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.

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The resilient and secretive Silene acaulis

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.

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A rare find for Qikiqtaruk, a bit of Silene acaulis, spotted by Isla in the summer of 2017.

By Haydn, Sandra and Isla

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