The tundra up close

It is the first week of July and the tundra has lit up in colour. Shades of pink, blue, yellow and white mix in to create a vibrant tundra landscape. This is the time when the diversity of plants on Qikiqtaruk is most striking. Many tundra plants are small in stature and only bloom for a short period of time. For most of the year, this diversity remains hidden, but now, it fills up the tundra with showy flowers and floral scents. Zooming in on this arctic landscape further reveals many species, each with its own adaptations for life at high latitudes.

The tundra is brimming with flowers, like lupines, avens, willows and more. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

A quick pace of life

In the tundra, time often appears to stand still with the never setting sun. Especially on calm evenings with perfect sunset reflections in the water, or foggy days when the island is enshrouded in white cloud. But behind this apparent stillness, a quickly paced life for plants takes place. Here, plants have only a few weeks to bloom and disperse their seeds. Though it seems like the flowers have only just appeared, if we look closely, we can already see seeds that the Arctic winds will soon carry across the tundra.

Against the midnight sun, the petals of this lousewort flower become translucent, revealing the seeds that will soon be dispersed across the tundra. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Flurry of life

When July arrives, it is as if the whole tundra, from the plants to the wildlife, is swept into a flurry of life. Buzzing invertebrates and gusty winds spread pollen from flower to flower across the landscape. The flight of an Arctic bumblebee is perhaps the loudest bee buzz I have ever heard when it gets close. In this high-paced life, all leads up to peak biomass, the time of the year when the tundra will be the greenest and most bountiful it will be all year.

The arctic poppy, with its electric yellow petals, stands out from afar, making it a popular stop for the insects flying across these landscapes. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Peak biomass

Peak biomass is the pinnacle of a summer in the Arctic. Not just for the plants and wildlife, but also for scientists. In the days surrounding peak biomass, I will once again pick up a 1×1 m plot, up to a 100 metal pin flags, long measuring tapes and more. With the equipment in tow, I will survey the diversity of plant life on Qikiqtaruk and mark the exact locations of where tundra biodiversity hides. Revealing the diversity of these arctic plant communities and how it relates to microclimates across the landscape can help us predict how ongoing and future climate change will alter life here on Qikiqtaruk and around the Arctic. So us scientists will pick up our pace as well, dashing across the tundra, perhaps not as quickly as a bumblebee, but with similar determination.

In the tundra, peak biomass marks the time of year when the landscape is the greenest and plant life is most bountiful. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

And then the tundra will become quiet again. From peak biomass onwards, life here slows down, in time for the oncoming winter. Bumblebees will retreat to the soil; willows will shed their last leaf and the tundra will slow down to a browner quiet in preparation for the dark months ahead. In around 10 months, spring will return and the cycle will begin again.

Words by Gergana Daskalova

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