Arctic adventures I: Beyond the treeline

I’m paddling in the Strait of Georgia. As I walk across the large sand-flat the water muddies and small fish skit from their holes under my feet, while a much lighter footed fisher wades nearby. After watching some Grey Heron and spotting my first Bald Eagle, it’s time to prepare for heading north… Soon I will be making my way up to Herschel Island, Canada, north of the Arctic Circle.

bike ride view

The Arctic Landscape

On the 14th of January Herschel Island, which is situated on 70° N, saw the Sun rise for the first time in three months, before it set again only 50 minutes later.  By 17th of May the Sun no longer dropped below the horizon, casting the Island in constant sunlight and marking the arrival of an intensely productive albeit short arctic summer [1].  Unlike the more barren Antarctic landscape, the Arctic encompasses a seasonally-rich inhabited landmass which supports a diversity of people, plants, and animals. The terrestrial ecosystem spans across several countries forming a ring around the Arctic Ocean (in which the melting sea ice and North Pole lie).

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 00.40.18

Map of the Arctic

As the Sun warms the landscape and melts the winter snowpack, a diverse layer of plants and mosses is exposed (the latter often forming thick moguls that lend themselves to comfy tundra naps for the longer days in the field). Plant roots spread into a thawing soil, which once again provides water and nutrients required for the growth driven by the dawning sunlight.

However, below this active layer there is a more permanent frozen soil expanse. Permafrost. It holds a significant store of both carbon and methane, which if released into the atmosphere due to warming could contribute further to accelerating the global climate warming as a result of a positive feedback cycle [2]. As the Arctic is currently warming at twice the global average (0.4º C per year), understanding how these ecosystems function and respond to change is atop the list of current ecological research questions.

Although trees don’t extend this far north, many types of plant communities and habitats are found here, ranging from wet boggy tracts, characterised by sedges (Carex spp.) and wispy Cotton-grass (Eriophorum spp.), to dry grass rich banks. Habitats vary from thick multi-layer shrubbery containing various species of birch (Betula spp.) and willow (Salix spp.) to bare or lichen spotted rocky outlets.

Moss Community

Moss Community

Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) forming a 'cushion' to trap heat from sunlight and create its own microclimate

Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) forming a ‘cushion’ to trap heat from sunlight and create its own microclimate

The soil chemistry also represents a gradient through acidic to alkaline conditions. Grass, moss, sedge, forb, and shrub dominated habitats all exist in a heterogeneous mosaic across the landscape, punctured by scree top mountains and glacial melt flowing through rivers and lakes.

As the plants stretch out, flower, and seed, a diverse mix of invertebrates, migratory birds and mammals soon follow the new abundance of habitat and food sources available. Big mammalian predators such as bears and wolves, and smaller ones, such as foxes, and their herbivorous prey, including caribou, moose and muskox, are found across Arctic regions. Often migrations of tourists, scientists, naturalists and adventurers arrive to share the landscape with them.

Brooks Range, Alaska

Brooks Range, Alaska

Fox exploring a rocky ridge

Fox exploring a rocky ridge, Alaska

Which brings me round to why I’m here: I will be working with Isla Myers-Smith, a young Arctic scientist from the University of Edinburgh, and  we are going to spend the next 8 weeks camping in the Yukon studying the response of a range of plant species to climate change.

Word from a local ecologist returning from Herschel today says that the drift ice is abundant around the Island this year, and thus polar bear watch is on high! Fingers crossed for a spotting (though they are deemed the most ruthless of the bear family… so preferably from the safety of a well-build cabin!). It’s time to leave behind the comfort of a bed and Internet connection for the last leg of our journey north, but hopefully more to follow on the wildlife and the science side of things as the season progresses!



[2]  Davidson, E. A., & Janssens, I. A. (2006). Temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition and feedbacks to climate change. Nature440(7081), 165-173


2 responses to “Arctic adventures I: Beyond the treeline

  1. Pingback: Arctic Adventures II: Observing the impacts of climate change on the Arctic landscape | EcoPost·

  2. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking a few minutes and
    actual effort to produce a good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a lot and never manage to get anything done.


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