Vivid purple fireweed, tangy mountain sorrel and succulent crowberries and blueberries — these are some of the better known plants that burst into life during the Arctic’s short, intense summers. But scientific knowledge of northern plants and the impacts of climate change on the flora is patchy, says Arctic botanist Jeffery Saarela. He and his colleagues at the Canadian Museum of Nature are filling in some of the gaps.
“Before we can know how Arctic plants are changing,” he says, “we need to know the species and their distribution today.”
Saarela is working with Lynn Gillespie and other museum botanists to compile a new botanical catalogue of the Canadian Arctic — the first reference ever to document the vascular plants (flora with roots, leaves and stems) for the entire region.
Their ambitious project is building on a 200-year legacy of botanical collections. Some of these, such as explorer Sir William Parry’s early 19th-century Arctic collection, were the works of amateurs picking up plants at random (Parry’s collection was discovered by chance in a Vancouver bookstore). Other surveys were made by distinguished scientists such as 20th-century Canadian Arctic botanist Alf Erling Porsild.
Since 2009, the Canadian Museum of Nature team has worked in western Nunavut, the eastern Northwest Territories and southern Baffin Island, travelling by helicopter, canoe and foot.
“We go into an area for the month of July,” Saarela explains. “We spend a week camping in each new spot, exploring the ground and making collections of all the different species. And since we have in-depth training, we’re able to find the interesting things that others would miss.”
The specimens are placed in plant presses where the Arctic air, which contains very little moisture, quickly dries them out, after which they’re taken south to the museum for storage and laboratory analysis. They are housed permanently in the museum’s National Herbarium of Canada and in other Canadian and international herbaria.
The project is producing baseline information that can be used in the future to measure environmental change. “There’s good evidence to show that Arctic shrubs are already responding to warmer temperatures,” says Saarela. “Shrubs are getting much bigger and denser. This is called ‘greenification’ or ‘shrubification’ of the Arctic. But contrary to what we sometimes hear, there is little evidence that plant species are moving north because of climate change.”
The project, however, is more than a tool for measuring change. “It’s basic research to understand biodiversity in our country,” explains Saarela. “That’s a key aspect, and it’s unrelated to climate change. On every trip we find surprises, such as species farther north or south than they’ve been recorded before. That changes our understanding of the ecological conditions that they can survive under. And it means there’s still work to do.”
The work is continuing: in July 2016 museum botanists will be collecting plants near Arviat, Nunavut, on the west coast of Hudson Bay.
The results will be available to all, posted online with detailed descriptions, images and maps. “In the future,” says Saarela, “researchers will be able to see exactly what we’ve collected and will compare these records with what they see around them when they walk across the tundra, even a hundred or more years from now.”