TSSRAP summer student Allison Wetrade exploring the Barren-lands, along with Tundra Science and Culture Camp students Photo:  GNWT / K.Clark, ENR TSSRAP summer student Allison Wetrade exploring the Barren-lands, along with Tundra Science and Culture Camp students Photo: GNWT / K.Clark, ENR

Tłı̨chǫ Summer Student Research Assistant Program 2016

Arctic ecosystems are especially fragile and changes appear to be occurring more rapidly there.  The North is an important area for climate change studies.  Each summer, researchers travel to the Barren- lands to work out of the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake.  They are conducting studies in the field and collecting data to better understand the tundra environment and impacts of climate change on these ecosystems. 

In the Tłı̨chǫ Summer Student Research Assistant Program (TSSRAP), two youth spend part of their summer at Daring Lake, meeting and working with researchers who are studying the tundra environment and how its plants, soils and animals interact to affect vegetation growth and carbon exchange with the atmosphere.  This year’s researchers were Qian Gu, Rhett Andruko, Daniel Krivenko, Kristyn Forster, Electra Skaarup, and Ki-youn Kim.

How will Warmer Soils and Deeper Snow Affect the Tundra Ecosystem?

TSSRAP student Joshua Rabesca worked with Paul Grogan, Plant and Ecosystem Ecologist, Department of Biology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Paul’s research is focused on understanding energy and nutrient flow, carbon cycling, and plant-soil interactions in the tundra habitat – and impacts of climate warming on these processes. His team conducted various experiments to investigate potential impacts of warming on tundra plants and soils. For example, how are warming temperatures influencing the availability of nutrients to plants and to plant growth? Winter climate change in the arctic is predicted to result in deeper snow in many locations.  How will increased snow cover impact soil properties, plant growth and plant composition?

Arctic plant growth is strongly regulated by nutrient availability.  Here, ion exchange membranes are being inserted by researchers from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario (Qian Gu and Rhett Andruko) into tundra soil to measure nutrient availability to the nearby plants at a research site. Photo:  Paul Grogan, Queen’s University.

Winter climate change in the arctic is predicted to result in deeper snow in many locations.  Snowfences were established in 2004 to increase snowdepth over winter and study its impacts on soil properties as well as plant growth and composition.  The fences increase the peak snow depth from ~35 cm up to ~90 cm, and four other snowfences as well as five control plots are located nearby.  Photo:  Paul Grogan, Queen's University

As temperatures rise, species like Dwarf Birch shrubs are becoming more abundant on the tundra.  Paul's team is also interested in the expansion of shrub cover in the Arctic and any consequences of those vegetation shifts on carbon and nutrient cycling.  For example, one of his students addressed the following question: “Has the land cover, physical stature, or secondary growth of birch shrubs increased over the past 10 years at Daring Lake, and is this growth dependent on habitat type?”

Joshua assisted the research team in gathering plant and soil samples from various fertilisation plots.  He also spent a day with Professor Grogan doing maintenance on the snowfence, caribou exclosure, and greenhouse warming plots.

Climate change in summer is resulting in warming air and soil temperatures in many locations in the arctic.  A plastic greenhouse experiment was established in 2004 to warm the tundra during summer, and allow investiation of the potential impacts of warming on tundra plants and soils.  Here, researchers from Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario (Qian Gu and Rhett Andruko) are re-installing the plastic covering on one of the greenouses in early Summer 2016.  Photo:  Paul Grogan, Queen's University

The TSSRAP students also assist with the ongoing science projects that GNWT biologists have established at the site, as well as camp maintenance and chores.  TSSRAP summer student Allison Wetrade had an opportunity to help out on one of those projects.  Part of the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program, it's using tea bags as a way to investigate decomposition and nutrient cycling in the arctic.

Reading Tea Leaves to Learn more about Climate Change

Decomposition rates can vary with different environmental conditions, such as moisture, temperature and amount of permafrost. “Reading the tea leaves” next summer will tell researchers how fast plants decompose in an area.  By comparing the weight before and after decomposition, researchers will be able to measure the rate of decomposition.  Knowing the rate that organic matter degrades can help researchers better understand what will happen with climate change.  When plant material decomposes, some carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide --a greenhouse gas-- and some is retained in the soil. Researchers are interested in observing how the rates of decomposition and release of carbon dioxide exchange will be affected by the warming climate.  Next summer, researchers will compare rates of decomposition at each site. Allison helped remove tea bags that were put in last year and had overwintered, while others had been put in the ground this spring. 

There are related questions about the impact of thawing permafrost on the carbon cycle as a result of warming climate.  Methane (CH4), locked in permafrost, is escaping as ice thaws. The type, timing and the amount of greenhouse gas emission is uncertain, but there is concern that degradation of permafrost would have very significant local impacts on aquatic and terrestrial species and ecosystems.

TSSRAP student Allison Wetrade (at left) at tent circle site at Daring Lake, along with Tundra Science and Culture Camp students.  Photo:  GNWT / T.Stephenson, ENR.

Tundra Science and Culture Camp

Allison also had an opportunity to join other youth who took part in ENR's 10-day Tundra Science and Culture Camp (TSCC).  At TSCC, students learn about the tundra environment from different disciplines and perspectives –ecology, archaeology, geology, human history, and ornithology, the study of birds.  Allison found it fascinating to actually see evidence on the ground of people who had lived before on the Barren-lands.  Stone tent rings and artifacts were reminders that the Tłı̨chǫ, Yellowknives Dene, Métis and Inuit peoples had travelled, harvested and camped there in the past.   Allison has a strong interest in her Tłı̨chǫ culture and the traditional stories--and how they are connected with places on the land. 

Learning stories of the land from elders at Daring Lake, NWT. TSSRAP student Allison Wetrade on the left.  Photo:  GNWT / T. Stephenson, ENR

TSSRAP student Allison Wetrade sharing traditional stories from her home community with students at the Tundra Science and Culture Camp.  Photo: GNWT / T.Stephenson, ENR


The vastness of the tundra also captivated her and how far she could see in the distance.  Her photos show this--and her interest in the tundra's wildlife.  In this photo, inside the rock crevice, is a baby falcon.  

Young falcon  Photo:  Allison Wetrade

Caribou bone marrow.  Photo:  Allison Wetrade

One of the activities at TSCC was monitoring small mammal population trends using a live trapping method. Information is collected each year and monitored by circumpolar agencies.  Allison took part in this project, running the trap line, finding out which traps had been fired and which species had been trapped.  As it turns out, red-backed voles were the small mammals caught most often. 

The landscape itself probably had the most impact on Allison.  The dramatic eskers-- long winding ridges of gravel that one can climb to take in spectacular vistas--were especially memorable for her. 

On top of an esker at Daring Lake, NWT.  Photo:  GNWT / T.Stephenson, ENR

Barren-lands at Daring Lake, NWT  Photo:  Allison Wetrade