The science behind The Hidden Arctic Project

The planet is changing at an increasingly high pace, with the consequences of climate change reaching far across the Earth’s biomes. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the Arctic tundra, which is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Our project will contribute to precisely quantifying ongoing and future biodiversity change across these unique yet threatened northern landscapes.

Our project will capture how plant biodiversity in the Arctic is changing in a warmer climate – shifts that might then echo through the whole ecosystem. Infographic by Gergana Daskalova.

A long-term perspective on Arctic change

Year after year, scientists return to the same plots to capture temporal shifts in plant communities across the tundra. Photo by Mariana García Criado & Gergana Daskalova.

A pin drops in the tundra. And then 11,999 more pin drops follow. Metal pins like this one are one of our key tools in monitoring the changes in plant communities on Qikiqtaruk. By recording the types of plants the pin touches every time we drop it, we can get insights into the number and types of species found from one year to the next.

Biodiversity change beyond the plots

Extensive surveys from the ground and the sky help us discover the tundra’s hidden diversity – soon the tundra will light up with orange flags, each one marking the precise location of a plant species. Photo by Kayla Arey.

With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. To understand these shifts in tundra ecosystems, we need to look beyond the plots and capture the landscape context of biodiversity change – all the species lurking just outside of the plots and the types of habitats (for example, warmer or cooler, wetter or drier) they are most often found in. This so-called “dark biodiversity” can be the hidden source of future biodiversity change in the Arctic that might then go on to influence how the entire ecosystem functions.

Links across scales

We will record the precise location of the first individual of each new plant species we find – these locations will then be the link between our ground and aerial surveys, and between the plot-scale and landscape-scale biodiversity change. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin.

We will combine plant and drone surveys to capture two complementary perspectives on biodiversity change in the tundra – the types of species that occur across these shifting landscapes, and the microhabitats they occupy. By linking ground and aerial observations, we will be able to discover the explicit hotspots of biodiversity across different types of topography and microclimate, and quantify if the rates of biodiversity change are intensifying with rising temperatures.

Stay tuned as we pack our pin flags (and many other boxes of equipment) and head north to begin our search for the Arctic’s hidden biodiversity.

By Gergana Daskalova

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