The Greening ArcticLatest update September 8, 2019 Started on August 2, 2008
Warming temperatures, melting sea ice and thawing permafrost are transforming tundra landscapes. Team Shrub is heading to Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island to capture vegetation and biodiversity change as they unfold across the greening Arctic.
Signing off on Open Explorer
Thanks everyone for joining our expedition! We are back from the Arctic with nearly 5TB of data, photos, video and sound. There is lots of work ahead to put together our findings and share the story behind this science.
We will be continuing to document our adventures and present preliminary findings over on our website: teamshrub.com
So join us to continue the journey!
Weather can alter the best laid plans when doing Arctic fieldwork. Our final days on Qikiqtaruk did not go according to plan. But then I never feel ready to leave the Arctic anyways. I relished the extra days that we had on the island and the adventures that ensued. Here is my account of being weathered in for almost a week at our Arctic field site.
The end of the field season is always a strange time – a limbo between Arctic fieldwork and the return to the rest of your life. You have your list of goals for the summer that are mostly ticked off. But there is still a mad rush to get the last things done. You say to yourself, “this is the last time I will walk around the spit” or “this will be the last sauna”. This summer the last sauna was definitely not the last as we had quite a few extra days added on to our field season. Day 41
The day we were scheduled to leave Qikiqtaruk the storm clouds were moving in. Rain had already arrived in Inuvik and due to the bad weather our charter plane couldn’t pick us up. We unpacked our personal bags and settled in for the night.
We saw the newly arrived polar bear across the cove. We first spotted the bear a few days back. This was my first sighting of a polar bear in the wild, despite working in the Arctic for over 10 years and in Polar bear country on Svalbard, Ellesmere, Churchill and here on Qikiqtaruk. The bears have been around me, it is just I have never seen them with my own eyes before. So it was quite the excitement at the first sighting!
A through the binoculars photo of Slumpy the polar bear from a distance. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
Unlike most polar bears, this particular bear was actually not particularly white because it was covered in mud from the permafrost thaw slumps along the coast. We named him Slumpy. He (we thought it was a he) hunkered down across the bay to sleep through the storms. Later on, I spotted a grizzly bear roaming around the ridge near where the polar bear was curled up out of the wind. The two species of bears came within 100 m of each other, but seem to ignore one another. Spotting the two species of bears in the same terrain is an uncommon occurrence – though the two species have been found upon occasion to interbreed.
Polar bear foot prints on the beach around camp. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
The winds picked up and it started to rain. Near gale-force winds were predicted. We weren’t going to be flying today. Time to bring in more wood for the wood stove and to bake some cookies. We had eaten the same dinner for two or was it three nights in a row now – sun-dried tomato pasta – hard to beat! There was an evening game of cards planned – an intense game called Snert.
Ravens playing in the wind above the tent shelters. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
Today, the winds reached near gale force. That meant no plane again. Instead, more time by the fire. More cooking and cleaning. There were boxes to inventory and more organising to do. Trips to the outhouse were exciting with the wind ripping the door out of your hands. The buildings moan and groan in the wind. The stove pipes rattled. The polar bear was still across the bay hunkered down in the terrible weather. But, we were cosy warm by the wood stove.
The wind and waves of the constant storm that kept us weathered in for days. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
Rain and winds again. It was hard to concentrate on much of anything not knowing what the future could hold. Will we fly tomorrow or not? Will we be here for days? Whittling wood, crafts and cooking were the best ways to pass the time. I got out my watercolour paints. There were still some data and camera cards to back up. The bags were still mostly packed. And we were unsure how much to unpack. We could be leaving at any time if the weather improved.
A bowhead whale in Pauline Cove in the darkness of the stormy rains. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
In the afternoon, we heard that there were bowhead whales in the bay! We rushed out into the horizontal rain trying to keep our cameras dry. There were at least four bowheads close to shore by the sauna swimming back and forth and feeding in the shallows. They were so close you felt you could reach out and touch them. We wonder could they see us through the water? It was too cold to stay out for long, so we did rotations by the fire before heading out again to commune with the whales.
In the evening, we heard a message on the handheld radios. “Polar bear coming to camp”. We grabbed our cameras and threw on our warm clothes and stood outside our building watching from a safe distance. Sure enough along the beach beyond the runway Slumpy was slowly approaching. The rangers scared off the bear after we got a pretty good view from our buildings.
Slumpy the polar bear and a distant bowhead painted by Isla Myers-Smith.
The weather had improved a bit, but there was still some low cloud, rain and fog. Others were more optimistic, but I didn’t think we were flying today. The Community Building became a hair salon for those wanting a trim or style. The sauna was on for everyone to get cleaned up before our returns to town. The polar bear had wandered off. The bowheads were gone. We all went for walks around the spit for fresh air and to stave off cabin fever.
Snow flakes the size of ping pong balls as winter arrives in August. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
In the evening, we looked out the window. Snowflakes the size of ping pong balls were falling from the sky. We rushed out to see first-hand and to catch snowflakes on our tongues. Soon there was enough snow on the ground for a few snowballs and a bit of a snowball fight. How white would it be when we woke up tomorrow? Only time would tell.
Qikiqtaruk in greys and whites with the fresh dusting of snow. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
I woke up early to a two-inch blanket of snow across the island. Everything was white including the fog all around. The winds had died down. Qikiqtaruk was a winter wonderland. I walked around camp to enjoy this view of the island that I don’t usually get, but I stayed close to the buildings. Slumpy would blend in much better in this world of white! With the snow and the fog, the plane was unlikely to come right away, so I went back to bed.
The next time I woke things were brighter. The fog had cleared. The snow was melting. The weather might now be flyable! Then we got word, the plane was on the way. We were the second flight, but it was still time to kick into high gear and get our stuff re-packed and out to the runway. We also needed to clean, sweep and mop again. We shifted from being on hold to action mode.
The plane finally arriving means it is time for us to be leaving the Arctic. (photo: Isla Myers-Smith)
The first plane arrived. We thought to ourselves, we might actually leave on today – our sixth day of being weathered in. The pilot warned us to tell him over InReach if the fog returned or if it started to snow, but instead over the next hours the clouds cleared. We had time to put the drones in the air one last time to capture the island dusted in snow and the first glimpses of sun for over a week. Then finally, we heard the sound of the returning Twin Otter and saw the plane in the distance.
This was our final day on the island. We saw the once verdant green Arctic turn from autumnal yellows and browns to white with snow. The beginning of winter had returned to the Arctic just as we were headed south – the end of the field season.
Words, photos and video by Isla Myers-Smith
An Island Beyond Time
Qikiqtaruk is an island beyond time. The mix of heritage, long human history and the modern day all collide in one place under the midnight sun, moving its inhabitants to a time zone all of their own.
Pauline Cove seen from a drone's camera. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
“Are we meeting at 8:30 pm Yukon Time or 8:30 pm Inuvik time? I think they said Yukon Time. But it is 8:30 now! No, it isn’t, it is 7:30. Yes, but that is 7:30 Mountain Time. Wait, no it isn’t. What time zone is this iPad in? It is 8:30 Pacific Time after all. That means we’re late!”
These are the types of conversations you have when you live on an island existing in at least two time zones. Officially we are in the Yukon and thus in the Pacific Time Zone. But all of our logistics come through Inuvik, so it makes more sense to keep to Inuvik time as that is when the planes land. The Yukon Government sticks to the official time and the rest of us generally are on Inuvik time – if it suits us.
Two of Canada’s time zones are represented here, and one that goes beyond traditional time. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
We’ve noticed this year that our smart phones and iPads have gotten smarter. They reset the time back to Pacific when we set them manually to Mountain, contributing to the time zone confusions. But then this is the Arctic – the land of midnight sun and 24-hour daylight. So schedules tend to be somewhat fluid anyways.
Mornings on Qikiqtaruk are long drawn out events. When does morning even begin? It is hard to say and usually we are sleeping through the transition as the sun climbs higher in the Eastern part of the sky. Morning for us at the moment is when sun pours into the windows of the East side of Signals house making it hard to keep your eyes closed for much longer.
Solar noon comes around at 2 pm (Inuvik Time) so that is when you want drones in the air if you are collecting multispectral data. That means getting up at the crack of 9:30 am and getting bags ready and lunches packed by 11:00 am for flights to begin by 12:00 pm – Inuvik time that is.
Luke launching the Parrot DISCO while judging the wind. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
The afternoon is a long fade from midday to evening. By 5:00 pm the light is getting a bit low for multispectral data collection, but for RGB work, the light is still fine, so there might be time to hike over to the slump or head over to the coast for some additional flights.
The sun is getting low in the sky by 8:00 or 9:00 pm or so and if it was a sunny day, that means golden light angling out of the clouds with rays hitting the horizon. This starts the period when the light is great for photography. A last drone flight with video to capture the site, or photos as you walk home to camp are an end to the work day.
Looking out towards Colinson Head. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
By 11:00 pm or so the magical hours are approaching. The golden light is now bathing the land and often the seas have stilled to a flat calm. Now the Arctic is achingly beautiful everywhere you look. Sandpipers and plovers run around the ponds, baby eider ducks splash in the waves, and if you are lucky, a fox walks the beach or a pod of belugas swim by. From midnight until 4:00 am the Arctic is at its daily best and the photographer can’t rest just yet.
Sunset reflections on Pauline Cove. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
By 4:00 to 5:00 am the sun is starting to rise again in the sky. And the promise of good drone weather the next day sends the last stragglers to bed. When the wake up is at 9:30 am, that means a short night of sleep, but often the morning weather check indicates conditions no good for drone flying – too windy, too foggy, to rainy, so then you get to blissfully sleep in.
Semipalmated Plover and chick. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
The schedule that one adapts to when out here is affectionately known as Herschel Time – when you follow the light and the weather and don’t stick to the 9 to 5 and 24-hour day. As I write this blog post an hour from the solar minimum and ponder the other things I want to accomplish this evening before I head to bed “early”, I know I am now adjusted to the schedule of this place.
Words by Isla and photos by Gergana
Blowing in the Wind
The Yukon flag flaps East, then North, then West, then back to North – with the shifting winds likely signifying a storm on the way. What will the looming clouds to the west bring? It could be all sorts of different weather as our last week on the island has taught us. Weather dictates life as a field researcher in the Arctic. Our fates are tied to the winds.
The gale arrives as the wind whips the flag first East then West and up to 75 km/h the second of multiple storms we have experienced over the last week. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
We have recently experienced almost all possible weather conditions over the span of just a few days. From hot sun and still air, to a thunderstorm and hail pelting the island, to gale-force winds, to white-out fog, to rain and back to sun. The weather continues to be unpredictable making it hard to plan our fieldwork. Each night we go to bed wondering what weather we will wake up to the next morning.
Weather #1: The lightning storm The day was hot for the Arctic. It could have been as warm as 18C. So hot we were in t-shirts, and the air was still and oppressive. These are rare conditions when the breeze usually has a chill to it. We were back at camp after being out that day and the sky was turning to sort of grey-ish yellow in the distance to the West. Then we heard our first thunder clap. We ran outside to get a better view with GoPros and cameras in tow. Across the island to the North of us a show played out of arcing lightning crisscrossing the sky punctuated by booming claps of thunder.
Once the darkest clouds reached us, we began to be pelted with a mix of hail and rain, soon getting quite wet! The lightning strikes appeared from a distance to be making landfall – though likely they were not. Could the tundra of Qikiqtaruk burn, we wondered as we watched. Large tundra fires have been observed in this region of the world. In 2007, the Anaktuvuk River fire burned 1039 km2 of tundra on Alaska’s North Slope just a few hundred kilometers from Qikiqtaruk. From charcoal records, we know that the tundra burned more frequently in the past during warmer periods of the Holocene. But a fire was not lit that evening on the Qikiqtaruk tundra.
A frame from our GoPro Fusion video of lightning arcing in the sky and reflected in the still calm waters of the pond in front of the Sauna as the electrical storm arrives. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.
Weather #2: The Gale The following day, all of our weather sources were alerting us. The rangers said there was wind on the way. I got an InReach message from my brother telling us to stay safe, and the weather reports said gale-force winds. The winds were already well past breezy and white-capped waves were crashing on the shores to the East. But that evening at around 8pm the winds switched suddenly from East to West. The chimney started thrumming and the windows started rattling – the storm had arrived.
Waves crash against first the Eastern shores and then the West as the winds pick up in advance of the gale. Photo by Gergana Daskalova
As the winds grew stronger and stronger, we headed out into them to experience the wildness around camp. With waterproof GoPro Fusions in hand we headed off to the beach where the waves were crashing onto shore sending spray high into the air. The waves were making it over the beach in places, flooding pools around camp and splashing into the buildings close to shore. The brave Eider duck families were still out there riding the waves trying to find a bit of shelter in the wind. It was time to retreat indoors when Gergana got drenched by a wave in the face.
A family of Eider ducks splash in the waves seeking shelter during the gale. Photo by Gergana Daskalova
Weather #3: The fog Next morning we woke up, not to devastation, but to the fallen stairs of one of the outhouses and our mostly empty water barrel blown over. The high winds of the previous day had been replaced by a calm wetness. Though the clouds came and went, fog blew in from across the cove, blanketing the camp in white. The fog has a certain peace to it, particularly fog after storms. But this marked yet another day without data collection. And the wet weather left a feeling of being trapped in camp. Our bags were packed and ready to head out flying, but we were grounded yet again by the weather.
The fog descends on Pauline Cove on the third day of stormy weather. Photo by Gergana Daskalova
We had lost track of time during the period of storminess and changeable weather. Finally, three or it could have been four days after we last were out of camp, the skies cleared and the winds dropped and we were able to return to data collection. Five flights of multispectral data to capture tundra greenness and one trip to a distant permafrost slump to explore and map with our drones. Yay! The satisfaction of full day out in the field and data to back up on our return. But the good weather was short lived! As the winds are back and so are we are yet again stuck back at camp.
Words by Isla Myers-Smith, photos by Gergana Daskalova
I'm joining up with Isla, Gergana, and the rest of Team Shrub in the coming days on Qikiqtaruk. They've sent some updates from the island back with another team that we're hoping to post soon. In the meantime, however, I'm very much looking forward to getting out there to catch up on what has been an extraordinarily early spring and summer.
One question worth asking is why? I've just wrapped up a series of flights and bus-trips taking me from Sakhalin, Russia to Inuvik, Canada...the long way around. I'm supremely jet-lagged, don't smell great, and have released an elephant's weight of carbon into the atmosphere for my efforts. Only one of these really impacts you, but all these costs require accounting. Why travel here? Why work here? Why study here?
Why the Arctic?
There are many answers to these questions, some are compelling for different reasons than others. In a few posts (that perhaps my colleagues will join in on), I'll try to answer. So first, a simple one:
Because life happens fast here. And it has to.
Few other places on the planet switch from cold, dark, and deadly to warm, verdant, and full of life so quickly. Similarly, these good times don't last long. The result is that plants and animals that live here face unique challenges about growing quickly, timing their life-cycles just right, and balancing seemingly impossible trade-offs. When these already intense seasonal cycles are disrupted by global shifts in climate, their impacts on plant and animal life reveals quite a bit about how life here works. In short, you can learn a lot when things break.
More answers to WhyArctic to come!
What does it mean to be an explorer?
There are different types of exploration. Exploration is not just the discovery of a new place, it is also the discovery of new information and knowledge. Here on the island, we are trying to understand the causes of the Arctic greening patterns observed by satellites and exactly how these landscapes are being influenced by climate change. I guess the ultimate aim of our scientific research is scientific discovery, but we are striving for a different sort of discovery than Arctic explorers of the past.
One way that Team Shrub research is providing a new perspective on Arctic greening and change is by capturing a drone’s eye view of the tundra. (Photo: Team Shrub).
Though Qikiqtaruk is located in a remote region of the Yukon Arctic coast over 200 km from the nearest year-round settlement, it is also home to the Inuvialuit. It has a long human history and active current community of hunters, gatherers and travelers. When we as researchers visit this place we are not exploring new territory. We are visiting the home of others and getting to know this landscape for ourselves. Each day out on the tundra, one is forming a mental map of each ridge and valley, each plant species and plot, but arguably this is only a personal discovery – others have set foot here before.
Arctic exploration has a mixed past. There are many epic tails to be told of southern people adventuring in the North and forming their own ideas about this environment. But many of those adventures have not ended well for the people involved. This summer I have been reading about the 1921-23 Wrangle Island expedition organized by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (“Ada Blackjack – A True Story of Survival in The Arctic” by Jennifer Niven). That expedition was not a success with four dying and the lone survivor being a Inupiat woman from near Nome, Alaska called Ada Blackjack. She alone figured out how to survive for two years in that far North landscape.
The Wrangle five after they had arrived on the island and before the hardships had begun. Pictured are Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer, Milton Galle, Ada Blackjack and Victoria (“Vic”) the expedition cat. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
The Wrangle expedition overturned Stefansson’s concept of the “friendly Arctic” as a place where anyone can easily subsist and survive. That being said, the Arctic is a very friendly place in many ways, if you come prepared and have the support of those who have lived here for countless generations. So as I have my daily dose of Country Time powdered drink with 100% of my daily vitamin C to stave off scurvy, the ailment to which one member of the Stefansson expedition succumbed, I think of the Arctic explorers of the past who did not have access to such modern comforts.
Stefansson made it to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island on his 1913 Arctic expedition, but it was only a short stop on the island, recorded here in his journal, which I got to check out at the Dartmouth College Rauner Library a couple of years ago. He returned to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in multiple other occasions. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
Over the past few years, I have been hanging out with a few different photographers: Jeffrey Kerby, Sandra Angers-Blondin and Gergana Daskalova. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer exactly, but thinking about photography has driven home the idea for me that every photographic image and also every idea formed is viewed through a lens. When I come to the Arctic and form my scientific understanding – I too see through a lens. Stefansson saw the Arctic through a very distorted lens, or perhaps rather he used filters to construct a version of the Arctic that was far from reality.
A distorted view of the Arctic tundra in Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. (Original photo: Gergana Daskalova).
Science, the other form of exploration, is also a journey. You apply for funding, if your funding comes through, you plan your field expedition, you get all your equipment and supplies and travel to your field site. And then once I arrive, I usually have a small crisis of confidence. Will we be able to collect the data? Were my ideas that good to begin with? What if everything goes wrong? Then you make a schedule and start plugging away and before you know it the data are coming in and you are achieving your goals day by day.
I have just started reading about one of the world’s most famous explorer scientists – Alexander Humboldt. By reading his writings this summer (“Selected Writings” edited by Andrea Wolf), I hope to be inspired by my own more humble scientific adventures. Humboldt was the father of biogeography and an early pioneer of ecology. He was also the first person arguably to use the infographic to great effect. His ‘Naturgemälde’ is a drawing of a mountain with all of the plant species by elevation depicted on the mountain slopes and environmental parameters that vary with elevation along the two sides. Capturing complex scientific concepts visually is something that I aspire towards.
The ‘Naturgemälde’ shows Chimborazo mountain – a mountain that helped Humboldt form his vision of nature. The engraving illustrates Humboldt’s ideas about plant distributions and nature as a web of life. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
Humboldt was driven by scientific discovery as he describes here in his ‘Personal Narrative’, 1812: “From my earliest days I felt the urge to travel to distant lands seldom visited by Europeans. This urge characterizes a moment when our life seems to open before us like a limitless horizon… What attracted me … was no longer the promise of a wandering life full of adventures, but a desire to see with my own eyes a grand, wild nature…, and the prospect of collecting facts that might contribute to the progress of science.”
Sometimes scientific discoveries happen right in the field. We now know how the big thaw slump on the island has changed between this year and last as the peninsula that has been there for perhaps a decade is melting away. We have discovered that the surface soils at this time of year are thawed deeper than they have ever been since we started our measurements. It looks like the erosion is not slowing down this year along the coastal reach near camp. As the field season progresses, I am learning many new things about this place.
The second largest thaw slump in North America – Slump D – from the air. Here, you can see the much reduced peninsula and impressive ice cliffs of the headwall from the air. (Photo: Team Shrub).
Sometimes the discoveries come much later once the data are analyzed. We won’t get the full answers to our greening questions until we have processed many drone models and analyzed many different datasets together. This full process of scientific discovery can take many years from data collection to papers. But it is finding the answers to my research questions that really drives me and keeps me going when the scientific process is slow and winding.
Being an Arctic researcher is, I guess, a combination of the two types of exploration – exploration of a place, and of the scientific understanding of that place. I feel very lucky to have a career that allows me to do both. I hope that I can be a different type of explorer to the first southern explorers who came to this place. I hope to share more respect for the people living here and the immense knowledge that they have. I hope the research that we do contributes to a better understanding of this place for everyone. As I conduct exploration in the modern day, I try to think on the exploration of the past. I believe that the relationships between researchers and local peoples are improving, but there is more to do on this front.
Isla looking out onto the sea and thinking about those exploring Arctic ground before our time. (Photo: Gergana Daskalova).
For now, here, from the island, I will try to get the most out of my time on the tundra in preparation for a winter of data exploration in front of a computer. And I will try always to keep in mind my own personal lens through which I view the Arctic.
Words by Isla Myers-Smith
All about the gear
A field expedition is part science, part logistics, part adventures, but it is also all about the gear. We wouldn’t be able to collect the data we need without a fair bit equipment. With all of our gear in toe we can now focus on capturing Arctic greening and hidden biodiversity.
In case you are interested, we thought we could run through some of the kit we are bringing with us this year.
For precision drone mapping, we will use the DJI Phantom 4 RTK drone system. Here’s hoping we don’t get logged out without regular internet access! Photo by Malkolm Boothroyd.
For large-scale RGB work we have also brought along our home-built Zeta FX-61 Phantom fixed wing drones. (Photo: Jeffrey Kerby).
To capture our tundra field site using video and photography from the air, we will use a DJI Mavic 2 Pro. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
The camera kit
For photography, Gergana will be shooting with a Canon 7D Mark II camera. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
To see up close, far away and from a wide angle, Gergana will shoot with Canon lenses including the 100mm f2.8 USM Macro, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II and 16-35mm f4, and a Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
We also have Nikon, Sony and other cameras along for the summer too. You can never have too many cameras!
The recording kit
To record the sounds of the Arctic, we will use Zoom H4n Pro recorders and a Røde VideoMic Pro. (Photo: Gergana Daskalova).
The knee brace
To make it out to our field sites across the rugged tundra, Isla will benefit from knee support by an Ossur knee brace provided by Kintec Vancouver and all of her physio from Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre! Thanks Kelli and Trixie! (Photo: Gergana Daskalova).
Thanks to National Geographic Society and the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK Arctic Office for supporting this field expedition. Thanks to National Geographic Society for an equipment loan of camera lenses, a GoPro Fusion, sound recorder and video camera. Thanks to Malkolm Boothroyd for providing us with a remote camera trigger, when we forgot to bring one ourselves! And thanks to our technical support team including Iain Myers-Smith, Mariana García Criado and Cameron Eckert who have been messaging via our InReach to help us overcome our technical and logistical challenges thus far!
So that gives you an idea of some of the kit we are bringing with us. It is always an adventure to try to pack all the right gear, figure out how your equipment works and particularly whether it will work without internet! Almost a week into our field season, and so far the gear has been serving us well. Here’s to a summer with as few technical challenges as possible – to keep the content rolling in.
Words by Isla Myers-Smith
Team Shrub has arrived on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic. Our Greening Arctic expedition has begun. We’re here to capture how the tundra plants of this permafrost-underlain landscape are responding as the Arctic warms.
The first sight of Qikiqtaruk from our Twin Otter flight to the island. Mud cliffs eroding into turquoise waters – a relic of the last ice age and an island under constant change with belugas swimming by. (Photos: Gergana Daskalova).
The start of an expedition is that moment when you step off of the plane and your boots hit the ground. It is a lot of work to prepare for a field season and it is only once you arrive that the excitement really sinks in. As my “city” running shoes hit the ground on the sandy beach strip of Qikiqtaruk, it hits me. We’re finally here.
The plane has landed on the beach strip. We have finally arrived and are about set foot on the ground at our Arctic field site Qikiqtaruk – home for the next 40 days. (Photo: Gergana Daskalova).
Qikiqtaruk has changed since I was last here a year ago. The air strip is closer to the beach, the buildings are closer to the waves, the permafrost thaw slumps in the distance have transformed their shapes. And yet in other ways this place is unchanged, timeless. After the hours and days it takes to adjust, it starts to feel like I have never left. We are back to the routines of living on the island. The running shoes and jeans are packed and our insulated rubber boots and down jackets are on. We’re ready to get to work.
Setting off across the tundra with backpacks full of equipment to survey tundra greenness across the landscape as it changes over the season. (Photo: Gergana Daskalova).
Drones in the air
After four days, plant and permafrost data collection is under way, drones are in the air and the NASA plane has already surveyed the island as a part of the NASA Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment Project. The task has begun to capture island-scale greenness and uncover the drivers of vegetation change across these tundra landscapes and over time. So far our fieldwork has gone according to plan, but Arctic fieldwork can always have surprises in store. What will tomorrow bring?
The launch. Fixed-wing drones take to the skies to capture the greenness of these greening tundra landscapes. These data will be compared with data from satellites and the NASA plane as a part of the ABoVE project to figure out what information is missing in coarse-resolution data. (Photo: Gergana Daskalova).
Winds of change
As I write this, the winds outside our building are shifting from the East winds of the past few days to the North. From mirror still seas to a chop on the water - feels like a change of weather might be on the way. Will we keep plan with our field schedule or will the Arctic weather will dictate where and when we next go out to collect data? If the weather turns, there is plenty of planning and preparation to do for the field season ahead. But, we’ll be impatiently waiting for the weather to clear again.
Still waters before the storm on the 9th of July on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic – the location of the Greening Arctic Expedition. (Photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
I will sign off here under the midnight sun as the blue skies shift towards a steely grey. Time to call an end to my day here in anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.
Words by Isla Myers-Smith
The science behind our journey
The Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the globe and has already warmed by two degrees Celsius (nearly four degrees Fahrenheit) in the last half century. This warming is melting sea ice, thawing permafrost - permanently frozen ground - and changing the tundra environment. And as the tundra warms, plants are responding.
Pondering permafrost and Arctic greening on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island (photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin).
In recent decades, scientists and people living around the Arctic have started to notice a much broader transformation and from space, the Arctic now appears much greener than it used to be. Making sense of how rapidly the tundra is changing is critical for understanding global climate change for the planet as a whole.
This is what vegetation change can look like - increases in shrubs (photo: Team Shrub).
While we are certain that the Arctic is changing, the scientific findings to date are also full of contradictions. For instance, not all satellites seem to agree on which areas are greening. In some places, satellites suggest big landscape changes, but they aren’t obvious on the ground - and vice versa. But satellite pixels can be as large as nearly 10,000 soccer fields and long-term monitoring plots can be as small as 1 x 1 m or the size of the surface of a card table. This is a massive scale gap!
Drones are providing new tools to monitor changing Arctic landscapes (photo: Jeffrey Kerby).
Is our understanding of Arctic change hampered by the fact that we aren't collecting data at the most useful scales to connect the dots between warming and plant responses? Drones will allow us to bridge this gap to disentangle how tundra ecosystems are responding to climate warming across these frozen landscapes.
Tundra ecosystems are surprisingly diverse given the only two-month long summer (photo: Jeffrey Kerby).
With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. Scientists have been monitoring plots across the landscape for over two decades to track the rate of this biodiversity change.
Meter-squared plots are how vegetation change has previously been monitored across the Arctic (photo: Mariana García Criado and Gergana Daskalova).
But what about the species found outside of plots? How many species have escaped the notice of scientists over time - the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity? Will uncovering this so called "dark diversity" influence our estimates of how tundra biodiversity will change in the future?
Team Shrub pictured here in 2018 is heading back to the Arctic this summer (photo: Gergana Daskalova).
Team Shrub has been working for over 10 years to figure out how high latitude ecosystems are responding to the rapidly warming climate. In the summer of 2019, we’re heading back to the Yukon Arctic Coast and Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island to study the rapidly changing Arctic. This year’s team is made up of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Purdue University. Our research will identify the hotspots of change across the landscape that satellite and long-term yet small-scale observations might be missing.
Let the science and the adventures begin!
Team Shrub: Luke Hull
I'm Luke Hull, a certified drone pilot and an undergraduate student at Purdue University majoring in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), part of the school of aviation. The course of studies includes construction, operations and data analysis of unmanned systems solutions as well as general aviation operations and aircraft maintenance. My passion for unmanned systems, combined with my love for the outdoors, has sparked my interest in working with and creating innovative solutions for unmanned aerial systems in different environmental applications. For as long as I can remember I have had a love for exploration, I am more than excited to embark on my first trip to the Arctic!
Team Shrub: Noah Bell
Returning from a successful drone flight after a smooth landing in the surrounding cottongrass (photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin).
I’m Noah Bell, a member of Team Shrub for the past year, and I am passionate about drones and climate science.
Where I grew up, in Washington, DC, it is illegal to fly drones anywhere in the city, so I had to travel well outside the beltway to practice. I studied civil engineering at the University of Vermont (UVM) and worked at the school’s Spatial Analysis Lab, an applied research facility that uses geospatial technology to assess a wide variety of environmental and human resource needs. While earning my engineering degree, my research lab experience exposed me to imaging projects that included emergency planning for developing nations and using drones to map invasive species, inundation areas, and riverbank erosion. During my third year, I became a certified drone pilot and was sent to fly mapping missions in such exotic locations around the US as Lake Tahoe, Hawaii, and the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Last summer after graduating from UVM, I joined Team Shrub as the drone pilot for the climate-vegetation research team heading to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. There, I fulfilled my dream of being able to fly a drone anywhere I wanted, so long as the weather, winds, mosquitos and wildlife cooperated. But it was on the ground, working with the amazing biologists and ecologists during their annual study of the island, that was the most rewarding experience. The summer was extremely rich in new perspectives while learning about climate impacts on Arctic ecosystems from the researchers themselves.
I have recently moved back to Washington, DC to work at a local engineering firm where I hope to get authorization to use drones to monitor the health of green roofs used to store stormwater and keep the city’s rivers clean from sewage runoff. But part of me wants to be back where, once getting permits and certificates approved by the Canadian government, the only authority needed to carry out drone research is nature itself.
Team Shrub: Mariana García Criado
Me happily carrying a Global Navigation Satellite System around the tundra (photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin).
My name is Mariana and I have been part of Team Shrub for almost two years now. I am currently working on my PhD, which focuses on understanding plant species responses to climate change in biomes found at extreme climatic and seasonality conditions, with a particular focus in the tundra.
I have always been drawn to remote and exotic places. Being born and raised in the gentle Mediterranean climate of southwestern Spain, “exotic” did not only mean tropical latitudes, but also the northernmost Arctic ecosystems. I recall developing a long-term fascination with the tundra after my Geobotany professor at University explained that the word ‘tundra’ derives from Finnish ‘tunturia’, meaning a treeless plain. I remember thinking just how poetic and appealing that sounded – even though, ironically, I have always loved trees.
That promise of such different and sometimes dramatic environments, shaped by centuries of cold temperatures driving geological and ecological processes, took me traveling to the north of Europe over the years. I visited Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, and was entranced by what I found there. In Iceland, some landscapes resemble moonscapes and are truly otherworldly. In Fennoscandia, the transition of boreal forest into tundra forms a very interesting ecotone. But all these landscapes have something in common. Life above the Arctic Circle has a special light, and a different rhythm.
One of the most spectacular midnight suns we saw in Qikiqtaruk, around 2am (photo: Mariana García Criado).
Developing a PhD project with Team Shrub made me realise that I did not only have to settle with admiring the tundra biome – I could also understand it. This search for answers took me to the Canadian Arctic in the summer of 2018 as part of the field crew to collect data on tundra greening. I remember the moment the plane left us on the strip of sand that acts as an airport runway in Qikiqtaruk. We watched the Twin Otter take off and disappear towards the mainland, and I remember thinking I had never felt so far away from everything.
But after a month in the island I felt fully at home in Qikiqtaruk, and no longer far from anything else. The fieldwork, the wildlife sightings, the exuberant midnight sun, the collaboration with researchers and the Inuvialuit people, and the new friends made along the way are experiences that I will always treasure. All the memories from last summer still feel very close to my heart and I really hope to return to Qikiqtaruk one day. A piece of myself was definitely left there among the polar bears, the ice sheets, and of course – the shrubs.
Cottongrass in Qikiqtaruk, with a view of the thawing permafrost in the slumps in the distance (photo: Mariana García Criado).
Team Shrub: Gergana Daskalova
Photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin.
I’m Gergana Daskalova and my motivation for exploring the Arctic stems from my love for heading off into the unknown in search of new discoveries and being part of a larger community with a common mission.
These two passions of mine have been common threads throughout my life, and on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic, they come together. I didn’t expect to ever see the Arctic with my own eyes, yet now it feels natural to be eagerly awaiting my third summer in the tundra. I am one to first go to a place chasing the unknown and then return pulled by an urge to contribute to a vision and understanding extending beyond just me. This crossroad between individual drive and common aims, between international explorations and a sense of belonging has been at the base of many of my decisions in life. This is the crossroad that ultimately led me to the Arctic.
Roads like this one in the Bulgarian village Tyurkmen have played a big role in people's lives for many generations. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.
Though there have been many crossroads, my journey started with the simplest of roads – a dusty dirt road in the Bulgarian village Tyurkmen. I am from probably one of the last generations in Bulgaria to have grown up running around village roads like this one. If you’re ever looking for someone here, chances are they are either in their garden, or “on the road”. Village roads are where grandparents wait for their children to return, where gossip flies fast as dust in the wind, where cow bells mark the beginning and end of each day. As a child, I rushed to the road every morning as soon as I heard the bells and watched first the cows, then the sheep and goats, and finally the buffalos head to pasture. We would play all day on the road until the buffalos returned as the sun was setting.
The last tomato harvest before the autumn frosts combines tones much alike those of traditional Bulgarian attire. Photos: Harvest (Gergana Daskalova) and portrait (Galina Daskalova).
Village roads are where many people, me included, first saw the world beyond their own homes. I grew up running between the garden and the road. Perhaps that’s what made me a quick runner – I was always dashing across wanting to see and experience life both in the garden and beyond. I loved hanging around my grandparents – we made endless jars of peach compote, turned pig fat into soap and seemed to always be watering the garden. I dedicated many hours to mastering the art of telling when a watermelon is perfectly ripe. But I was also always lured by the road, the far away neighborhoods (them being a whole half an hour walk away!), the dam and the fields. I grew up, and so did my world. Now it stretches way beyond the furthest field I dared explore as a child. I have found my passion and chased it all around the planet – from the wet and windy hills of Scotland to the hot red dust of the of Australian outback and now north to the Arctic. My world is much bigger now, but I am still very much split between the pull of home and the pull of the unknown.
Behind this basement door, tens of jars of pickles and compote remain unopened. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.
First people wondered how I could ever leave my garden. I was picking tomatoes and making tomato sauce till the very last day before my flight to Edinburgh where I would start my undergraduate degree in ecology and environmental science later the same week. I became one of the many villagers who hide away their gardening hoes, lock whatever doors can be locked and walk off into the distance. Then people wondered why I keep coming back. It is unusual for someone from a village like mine to go to places like Australia and the Arctic. What’s even more unusual, however, is for them to then come back to the village. Some of my gardening hoes were stolen the first year I left the village. My neighbor remarked: “well, you can’t blame whoever stole them, nobody thought you’d ever come back to use them again”.
Once the roofs fall, rain begins to wash away the sod from the walls and soon only a pile of stones remain to mark what was once somebody's home. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.
There isn’t anyone waiting by the road for me in the village anymore, the generations have turned and now I’m the one trying to preserve the traditions, home and garden I grew up with. Most of the houses on my road are empty and many say my village is on the way to becoming one of Bulgaria’s many ghost villages. Places ruled by memories, hidden or lost stories and a once jubilant past that may never come again. But I still see life in my village – different life to the life around me when I grew up, but life worth coming back for, nonetheless.
"Katmi" - the Bulgarian version of pancakes - are traditionally made over a fire, with the fire lit at the crack of dawn, so that the stone heats up enough. Once I use to wake up to the smell of katmi, now I wake up early to start the fire. Photo: Yovina Daskalova.
Villages are changing and this new epoch for rural areas can impact cultures, ecosystems and biodiversity. But if nobody is there to see it, if nobody returns, then we will never know what these new types of villages might mean for life around us. Similarly, the Arctic is changing, and it is not enough to just go to the Arctic once to capture how climate warming is altering life across northern latitudes. We need a long-term perspective – the kind of perspective you gain by returning, listening and working with the people for whom the Arctic is a long-term home. I am learning to embrace my age-old dilemma, to use it as the fuel for my motivation in my research, but also in my life. I love going to new places, but I also love returning to the places that I’ve already been to foster a much deeper connection and understanding over time.
Though monotonic at a first glance, tundra landscapes support a surprising diversity of plants. Photos: Landscape (Gergana Daskalova) and portrait (Sandra Angers-Blondin).
I don’t remember ever thinking about the Arctic, or shrubs growing up. My interests in plants were mostly utilitarian – jams, compotes, pickles, stakes for the cucumbers that would turn into pickles. And yet, here I am today, with my mind literally spiralling like our tundra protocols do to capture hidden biodiversity. A surprising diversity of tundra plants lurks across these landscapes, and I am eagerly awaiting our return to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island.
For the Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity project, I will be teaming up with Yukon Parks rangers and scientists from the Arctic (check out Kayla Arey’s bio just above this post) and beyond (read more about Team Shrub and about Isla Myers-Smith here). We will combine extensive ground surveys of Qikiqtaruk’s flora with aerial monitoring using drones. Our goal is to capture the tundra’s dark diversity – the species that lurk across the landscape yet have never been recorded inside small-scale monitoring plots. These elusive species might be the ones that shape the arctic ecosystems of the future, and I am so excited to return to Qikiqtaruk and work together with the community of people on the island to shed light on the tundra’s dark diversity.
For tales in Bulgarian, check out Градината на слънцето.
Team Shrub: Jeff Kerby
A brief intro and pre-departure thoughts from long-time Team Shrub collaborator, expedition photographer, and Arctic scientist Jeff Kerby:
“Extreme weather and climate have spurred incredible adaptations in Arctic plants and wildlife, while also shaping the region’s deep human history. This diversity of extremes initially drew me to the north as a biologist a decade ago, but now rapid Arctic warming threatens to reshape these stories. I’m excited to return to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island this summer to collaborate with Team Shrub by using photography for two purposes: 1. as a scientific tool, continuing my work as a fellow at the Dartmouth Institute of Arctic Studies, 2. and to tell stories, building on my experiences as a National Geographic photographer, by sharing perspectives on Arctic science, climate, and life in a globally important region as it transforms in front of (and often beneath!) us.”
Team Shrub: Isla Myers-Smith
I'm Isla Myers-Smith a global change ecologist from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I study plants in the Arctic and beyond and how ecosystems are responding as the planet warms. I work with my research group Team Shrub using all sorts of tools from measuring tapes to drones to capture Arctic change that we are seeing first hand at our Yukon field site Qikiqtaruk and around the tundra biome. What drew me to the Arctic over a decade ago was the promise of adventure and my curiosity about tundra responses to a warmer climate. I can’t wait to return this summer to add another piece to the puzzle of understanding Arctic greening!
Me walking among the ice bergs up on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic last summer (photo: Jeffrey Kerby).
Looking back it is hard for me to pinpoint when exactly I developed a fascination for the lands north of the treeline – the tundra. And I don’t know when it was that I first knew that working to understand change in the Arctic was going to become my life’s passion. It has been 30 years since I first went North as a child and 17 years since my first trip to the Arctic. I have been studying the impacts of Arctic climate change since 2008, the first time I set foot on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island. As I build a deeper and deeper connection to that place, I also am forming a deeper understanding of the change that is occurring on Qikiqtaruk and around the Arctic.
My first trip to the Canadian North in 1989 and my first bush pilot flight out over the Kluane Range Mountains (photo: Jamie Smith or Judy Myers).
My first trip to the Canadian North was when I was a 9 year-old kid. My parents were biologists and my father was working on a project in the boreal forests of the Yukon Territory. My childhood memories of that first trip North are mosquitoes, mountains, plane flights above the Kluane icefields out towards Mount Logan, and of course people who now are lifelong friends.
The Kluane Region of the Yukon Territory - my first introduction to the north as a nine-year old child (photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin).
Twelve years later when I was in university, I asked my undergrad thesis supervisor where should I go to do my graduate studies and she said she always thought Alaska sounded adventurous. And a year later I was moving north to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. My first trip beyond the Arctic Circle was at the very beginning of my time in Alaska. We drove up the Hull Road from Fairbanks the 600 kms North above the Brooks Range, beyond the farthest north spruce tree, to the Toolik Lake research station. It was here that I first formed an understanding of the impacts of a warming climate on tundra ecosystems – the focus of my research today.
An old photo of mine from my Alaska days in around 2003 in the Brooks Range north of treeline in Alaska (photo: Isla Myers-Smith).
Six years later, I made my first trip to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island, the destination for our 2019 research expedition. I was hanging out in the Kluane area conducting my PhD research on the increases in shrubs in the alpine tundra of the mountains around Kluane. In the same place where my father had been studying birds twenty years prior. And, I heard out about a trip to the Arctic coast of the Yukon – they were short one member of the team – someone to study the plants.
Pauline Cove (or Ilutaq) on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island on the Arctic Coast of the Yukon Territory (photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin).
The Yukon is a triangular shaped territory in the far northwest of Canada adjacent to Alaska. Most of the people live in the southern parts of the Yukon with nearly 80% of people living in the biggest town Whitehorse. There aren’t many people living in the Northern part of the territory which is mostly wilderness where wildlife range free. Up on the Yukon Arctic coast there are no permanent settlements, though Inuvialuit people visit the coast to fish, harvest wildlife and live off of the land. Very few other people get the opportunity to visit this remote part of the Canadian Arctic. So when the opportunity arose to replace a botanist on a trip up there, I jumped at the chance.
A lone caribou on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel island with an abandoned oil platform in the background (photo: Jeffrey Kerby).
Qikiqtaruk means the island in Inuvialuktun, the local language. My first memories of visiting Qikiqtaruk are of the plane flight out there from Inuvik. My first trip was on a float plane – a one and a half hour flight out to the island with all your food for the trip. It is a sometimes exciting flight across the vast Mackenzie Delta, along the Arctic coast past remnants of cold war radar stations and oil exploration from the past. It is the only island along the Yukon Arctic coastline – a chunk of mostly frozen mud, green with plants in the summer. On first approach it often emerges from the mists.
Tent shelters in the mist on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island (photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin).
I have been back to Qikiqtaruk eight times and every year for the past six years. This summer I will have the chance to return again to this place that is the territory of the Inuvialuit people, but feels like an Arctic home to me. I am eagerly anticipating that flight where we head out again across the delta with our plane load of gear and food. When we finally land on the rough beach airstrip and are greeted by the Park Rangers. That moment when I step down off of that plane and back on to the island that I have come to know and where I get to observe firsthand the change that is happening across the Arctic.
Discussing drone flights with pilot Noah Bell on Qikiqtaruk in 2018 (photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin).
The Greening Arctic
photo: Jeffrey Kerby
The frozen Arctic
Every summer in the Arctic, a dark frozen landscape rapidly transforms into a vibrant tundra ecosystem rich with plants and wildlife. This remarkable yet brief transition from 24-hour darkness to midnight sun creates a tundra teaming with life which has drawn scientists north for decades. The answers to big questions about how, where, and why life survives can be found here at the climate extremes of the planet.
photo: Gergana Daskalova
A transforming tundra
Over the last half century, scientists and people living around the Arctic have started to notice a much broader transformation. Tundra landscapes are fundamentally changing, and from space, the Arctic now appears much greener than it used to be! Sea ice breaks up earlier in spring and returns later in fall. Wildlife such as moose and beaver are moving north. Bare ground is becoming vegetated and where plants once grew they’re now growing taller. This may be the biggest biological signal of climate change anywhere on the planet.
photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin
Life at extremes
The Arctic, where life is shaped by an extreme climate, holds the key to our understanding of global patterns of diversity and species interactions. However, the scientific findings to date are full of contradictions. For instance, not all satellites seem to agree on which areas are greening. In some places, where satellites suggest big landscape changes, those changes aren’t obvious on the ground - and vice versa. Detailed records of vegetation change collected over decades can miss species lurking just outside of monitoring plots. And it is this hidden biodiversity that could be what will reshape the Arctic landscapes of the future.
photo: Anne Bjorkman
Making sense of how rapidly the tundra is changing is critical for understanding global climate change. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth. These high latitudes are home to a third of the planet’s soil carbon - that is vulnerable to loss as the region warms. And if that frozen carbon is released, it will further warm the planet as a whole. The changing Arctic affects us all.
photo: Jeffrey Kerby
We are Team Shrub - a group of scientists, photographers and drone pilots. We’re heading to the Yukon Arctic Coast and Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island this summer to study the rapidly changing Arctic as we have for the past decade. We will work alongside local collaborators, and share an inside account of our journey.
photo: Jeffrey Kerby
Join us along the way!
Check out https://teamshrub.com/!
Keen to learn more about the elusive plant species of the tundra? Check out The Arctic's hidden biodiversity expedition!
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