Arctic Field Trip: Ice in July Makes for Resourceful Researchers

In the Arctic, weather rules everything. Every Arctic researcher could tell you a story of how their Arctic field plans had to be changed—sometimes dramatically—because of uncooperative weather. This was certainly the case with our Arctic botany field trip in July.

Working with a team of researchers from Environment Canada, we had planned to visit numerous small islands along the north shore of Hudson Strait to study eider ducks and plants. We were to leave Cape Dorset (the community on Dorset Island closest to the study area) in early July and travel by boat to the islands. However, an excessive amount of sea ice around Dorset Island and all along northern Hudson Strait made it impossible to travel anywhere in the area by boat for most of July.

A motorboat and snowmobile sit on the ice.

A freighter canoe and snow machine sit on the sea ice in Cape Dorset Harbour on Dorset Island, Nunavut. A cold spring and summer resulted in persistent ice, preventing locals and researchers from getting out to their coastal summer camps. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because there are plants to study wherever one happens to be in the Arctic, we are usually able to be productive in our research, even when delayed. Indeed, on most of our previous trips, we have taken advantage of weather delays to make collections in the communities from which we travel to more-remote areas, and that is exactly what we did this year. Part of our goal was to document the vascular plants of Dorset Island and adjacent Mallik Island, and it turned out that we had more than enough time to do this while we waited for the ice to clear.

See the landscape of Dorset Island and southern Baffin Island, where we also collected plants this summer. The cool spring and summer delayed the melting of the ice and the re-appearance of plants. By the end of our July collecting season, some flowers started to appear. Still images in the video: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

We spent 13 days exploring and collecting the botanical diversity in and around the community under very un-summery conditions. The maximum temperatures rarely exceeded 5°C, a lot of snow remained in some areas, and on most days there was dense fog and rain.

A man carrying a rifle stands with a bay and Cape Dorset in the background.

Jeff Saarela in Mallikjuaq Territorial Park across from Cape Dorset. Members of the botany research team carry shotguns for protection when working in areas inhabited by polar bears. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Because of that, plant growth was very late, even for this middle Arctic area. Many of the earliest-flowering Arctic species, like purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) and the multiple species of Arctic willows (Salix spp.), had not yet started or were just beginning to flower, a good two or so weeks later than their average appearance for that area, according to community members.

A plant in bloom.

Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), the territorial flower of Nunavut, is one of the first plants to flower in the Arctic. On Dorset Island this year, it bloomed in mid-July—about two weeks later than usual—because of a cold spring and summer. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Most of the plants that we collected during the first week or so of the trip were at stages of growth that are not normally collected or even observed by field botanists. Many collections comprised winter-green leaves, last summers’ flowering stems and fruits, and small pre-formed buds at the bases of the plants that were initiated last summer and will develop into this season’s shoots and flowers.

These pre-formed buds are an adaptation to the extreme Arctic environment, allowing the plants to quickly develop once the snow melts and temperatures increase. By the end of two weeks, temperatures had increased slightly and the vegetation was showing more life, particularly on the warmest south-facing slopes that receive the most sunlight.

Two views of a plant in bloom.

The snow buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis) is an early-blooming plant that favours moist, disturbed habitats such as stream banks and roadsides. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Plant collections have been done on Dorset Island over the past century, as early as the 1920s by Arctic explorer Dewey Soper. However, the flora of the island has never been analysed or reported on in detail in the scientific literature. As such, we did not know if the record of plant diversity for the island was complete. Based on our field work, it is now clear the collections made by our botanical predecessors represent a comprehensive inventory of the plants of the area.

A man crouches to collect a plant.

Jeff Saarela collects plant specimens in Mallikjuaq Territorial Park. The park is located on Mallik Island, adjacent to Dorset Island, Nunavut, where the team was staying. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Our 310 new collections add to that record, and among them are several species not previously recorded for Dorset Island. These include some sedge species (Carex rupestris, C. rariflora and C. supina), mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), diapensia (Diapensia lapponica) and Arctic thrift (Armeria maritima).

The precise number of plant species known in the area awaits the careful study of our new collections and the re-examination of all the existing ones made in the area.

Several stems on a piece of paper.

Snow buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis) specimens ready to be pressed and dried. All plants collected are processed in this way. The result is flat, dry specimens that will be housed in the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

A synthesis of all the floristic information for the area brought together in a single scientific paper will provide a new baseline for understanding the vascular plant diversity of Dorset Island, on which future explorations can be based. And our new collections will contribute to our ongoing Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska project.

Although our original field plans didn’t work out, we made the best of the situation we found ourselves in, and we had a productive research trip. There is one upside to collecting plants in miserable, sub-five-degree temperatures: no mosquitoes.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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