We caught up with this year’s Walters Kundert Fellowship recipient, Dr Isla Myers-Smith of the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, who is investigating whether the Arctic is getting greener. She told us about how new technologies are enhancing her research and making analysis not only more accurate, but easier.
Slump in bloom, Isla Myers-Smith
This summer, funded by RGS-IBG, my research crew and I returned to the Arctic research site we’ve been visiting for the past few years to build on the work we had been doing on the permafrost.
The Yukon Arctic coast and Qikiqtaruk are areas with ice-rich soil, frozen year round. As the growing seasons are getting longer and the temperatures are warmer in summer months, the landscape is changing. Unfrozen ground – called the active layer as it is biologically active – is emerging above the frozen ground that lies beneath. This active layer is about half a metre thick, but it’s sitting on what’s essentially a large ice cube.
If this cube of ice is exposed to the sun’s heat, it starts to melt. Disruptions such as storms with lots of rain, streams with increasing volumes of water, or even the active layer on a slope detaching from frozen ground and sliding away, can expose the ice.
We returned equipped with drones to take photos of the landscape. We now need to analyse each pixel of these pictures to build a 3D model of these surface disturbances, and will return over multiple years, to analyse the change in the disturbances over time.
We can analyse the tundra surface by using sensors that collect information about the infrared part of the spectrum and this has allowed us to better understand the greenness of the landscape and pick up on plant activity.
Our hypothesis is that the greener places in the landscape are also the areas being disturbed at a higher rate by permafrost thawing. There’s been pretty substantial warming around the entire Arctic, 1.5°C over the last 30 years, and that’s caused a lengthening of the growing season – plants are growing where they couldn’t before as conditions were too extreme. We are seeing a prominent greening pattern from a satellite perspective.
However when comparing long term records, we don’t always see the measurements we have on the ground matching that from the satellite records. With drone data the pixel size is 5cm by 5cm instead of the much larger 10m by 10m, or 8km by 8km you get with satellite data, so we are getting much greater detail and accuracy than before.
Rapid advancement of drone technology and the ease of using them in remote situations have dramatically changed how we can test our hypothesis. At high latitudes it’s difficult – when you’re close to the North Pole the magnetic field interferes with the drone as they rely on compasses.
But even if we fly for just 30 minutes, thousands of images are collected. Over this summer, 2 petabytes of data was collected, and all of that imagery needs to be turned into material that’s useful to test the questions. It requires a lot of computer power!
Image: Andrew Cunliffe
I’ve been working in tundra ecosystems for 10 years so I’m quite familiar with that site and the Arctic in general, but each year I see visual changes in the landscape and the disturbances getting larger.
We hope to have impact on many levels:
To determine how Arctic ecosystems respond to warming and how plants will change, in order to make predictions about how climate change will develop in the future
To see if the carbon stored in frozen ground is being released in to the ocean and atmosphere by these large scale disturbances
To see if plants are capturing more carbon in their biomass and trapping it back under ground
We want to figure out all these different feedback systems, and put that in to large scale models to predict how Arctic and tundra climates are changing, but also global systems too.
Oh, yes. It’s a great opportunity. There are few fieldwork grants available and being given this opportunity as an early career researcher to research global problems was fantastic. It allowed us to go back to this site which we wouldn’t have been able to without the Fellowship.
To find out more about Dr Myers-Smith’s project, visit the Team Shrub website. You can also follow their progress on Twitter via @TeamShrub and @IslaHMS and on Facebook.
The deadline for the 2019 Walters Kundert Fellowship is 23 November 2018.
Awards of £8,000 for research in the physical or human dimensions of arid and semi-arid environments.
Three annual awards of £15,000 for early career researchers.
An annual award of £12,500 to an expedition working in an aquatic environment.
A biannual award of £15,000 to a research team undertaking challenging overseas fieldwork.
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