By Mariana Garcia Criado
PhD Researcher, School of Geosciences
All photos © Mariana Garcia Criado
This summer I was privileged enough to spend two full months in the Canadian Arctic doing ecological research on Arctic plant species – partly thanks to the support of the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund. My PhD thesis with Team Shrub at the School of Geosciences focuses on how vegetation in biomes found at extreme climatic conditions are reacting under current global change. Thus, travelling to the tundra was a major milestone in order to gain a better understanding on how the impacts of climate change look like in the real world.
My fieldwork season took me on a beautiful journey to Kluane National Park, in the southern Yukon Territory, and to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island, at the very north of the Yukon and only about 2,200 km away from the North Pole. Kluane, at the sub-arctic edge of the boreal forest, is home to spectacular lakes and mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see, and the only non-polar ice field in the planet. There, I mainly worked on a common garden project that aims at identifying how different plant species will react under a warming climate. The experiment has been running for over five years and we are very excited to see what the first results bring to the table.
At Qikiqtaruk, I spent a full month collecting vegetation data with different methods, including repeat photography, ecological monitoring and the use of drones. A long-term monitoring scheme has been in place on the island for almost 20 years, which has provided great insights into the way biodiversity is changing particularly on the island and generally across the tundra – a snapshot of the changing Arctic. The tundra is experiencing shifts at a faster rate than other biomes, which is having consequences for biodiversity, ecosystems, the carbon cycle, the melting of permafrost and coastal erosion, among others. This is why it remains so important to continue carrying out research in the Arctic, so we can better understand current and future challenges and implement effective solutions.
The fieldwork itself was sometimes physically demanding and mentally challenging, with some weather-related setbacks that involved waiting around for fog, rain or snow to pass. However, every day spent on the island was unbelievable worthy, with us being treated to spectacular landscapes, wildlife sightings, a close-knit community of park rangers, researchers and friends, and the most amazing sunset/sunrises that I have ever seen.
Overall, it was an incredible experience that has fulfilled me both at a personal and professional level. Career-wise, I have gained skills on ecological surveying and monitoring, data collection and analysis, and expedition planning and organising. Personally, it has made me grown immensely by meeting new friends, exposing me to new cultures, and making me a more resourceful when facing the unexpected. It doesn’t really get any better than that!