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Watchers of tundra plants

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Monday, June 25, 2012

Researchers are leaving this week for a Soper River trek to collect Arctic plant samples that may help others determine whether trees and plants are migrating north as temperatures rise.

NNSL photo/graphic

Dr. Jeff Saarela collects plants during a 2010 field expedition to Victoria Island. He and two other researchers are doing similar collection work along the Soper River which flows through Katannilik Territorial Park between Kimmirut and Iqaluit. - photo courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature

"There are studies in the North American Arctic that have basically shown the same thing," Canadian Museum of Nature botanist Jeff Saarela said in the wake of research findings that show shrubs in Russia are turning into tree-sized plants.

The Soper River runs through Katannilik Territorial Park between Kimmirut and Iqaluit.

"What people are finding is that yes, shrubs are getting bigger and more abundant, and when that happens, it changes the nature of the plant communities," Saarela said.

"Along the Soper River, there are large stands of tree-like willows, and these have been known for about 80 years. We know these tree stands are present, but we don't really know anything about them."

He's making a three-and-a-half week canoe trek with fellow botanist Lynn Gillespie and biologist Paul Sokoloff.

Starting June 26, the three will travel by canoe down the Soper as part of the five-year international Arctic Flora Project to create a scientific catalogue of Arctic plants in Canada and northern Alaska. It's the first time the Soper will have been surveyed for plants in about 80 years, Saarela said.

"Species haven't been documented because no one's looked for them in a thorough way," he said, noting his team expects to collect 800 species of plants. "With the climate changing, in order to assess changes in the future, you really need a good understanding of what's there now and what's been recorded in the past. We've been going into Arctic areas to collect and develop that baseline information on plant diversity."

That baseline will help other scientists perform similar research to what is being done in the Arctic tundra of Yamal, Russia, and in Finland. There, shrubs are turning into trees, according to research by Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland, Finland and Marc Macias-Fauria of the University of Oxford published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Using satellite imaging, fieldwork and observations from reindeer herders, they surveyed 100,000 square-kilometres of land above the treeline, and found that willow and alder plants had grown into short trees in eight to 15 per cent of the land over the last 30 to 40 years.

"The indigenous reindeer herders noticed these shrubs growing up and pointed it out to us," said Forbes, who did his graduate work on Baffin, Devon and Cornwallis Islands in the 1980s.

"It's a big surprise that these plants are reacting in this way," said Macias-Fauria, who confirmed statements he made on the Oxford website.

"Previously people had thought the tundra might be colonized by trees from the boreal forest to the south as the Arctic climate warms, a process that would take centuries. But what we've found is that the shrubs that are already there are transforming into trees in just a few decades."

Forbes said Canada is seeing similar changes.

"My colleagues (Greg Henry's team) working in Nunavut have said that the vegetation is changing there in response to long-term warming based on long-term study plots, including sites on Ellesmere Island," he said. "There are definitely changes happening in the Canadian Arctic that would probably correlate with each other."

If global warming causes tree growth, tree growth aggravates global warming because trees, which are tall enough to go above snowfall, have the ability to change the albedo effect increasing the amount of solar heat absorbed by the planet.

"As the shrubs grow up, not only the vegetation gets darker, but it would also affect the snow cover, the way the snow collects around the shrubs and the way it melts out in the spring," he said.

"The branches act as a dark surface, so in the spring, when there's almost 100 per cent albedo, or reflectance of the light back, these dark shrubs warm up because they're pulling in light, so it means a sooner thaw."

Macias-Fauria urges some caution in reading too much into his team's findings, as northern Russia is already warmer than the rest of the Arctic.

"However, this area does seem to be a bellwether (that) can show us what is likely to happen to the rest of the Arctic in the near future if these warming trends continue," he stated.

Through gathering a snapshot of plant life in Nunavut, Saarela's Soper River trek may contribute to a deeper understanding of whether similar changes are happening here.

"One of our fundamental goals is to understand what's in the Arctic," he said.

"It's a vast region and it's a lot more diverse than most people popularly think."

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