Fieldwork done!

The team has done it: all 180 plots from our long-term vegetation monitoring along the Norwegian mountain roads have been surveyed!

Sun is setting on this year’s MIREN survey (midnight sun over lake T√∂rnetrask at the Abisko Research Station). All pictures by Violetta Chernoray

With that achievement in our pockets, we now have the third time step in our time series all on paper, making the tenth anniversary of the survey a great success.

The team and all its energy ūüôā

One wouldn’t expect any less than full success with the team we had in the field, however. Just check that picture above, what a scientific enthusiasm sparks of the screen! That it was one of the more sunny fieldwork days might of course have helped…

Three Nazgul out and about surveying vegetation along mountain roads
Two team members overlooking one of the highest elevation plots, above the treeline and with the Rombaksfjord in the distance

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The legendary valley

Låktatjåkka, the legendary valley. Legendary for The 3D Lab, in any case, as it has been the backdrop of a lot of our research, all the way back to my own PhD.

The legendary L√•ktatj√•kka valley, seen from the end of the main valley, with its typical ‘dynamic’ weather. Picture Violetta Chernoray

We used this valley for three of our core experiments on the importance of disturbance for upward expansion of non-native plant species in mountains, two of which have been published in PNAS and Ecography. The valley clearly told us that disturbance was key for said plant invasions in cold environments.

We tracked the vegetation along the main trail through the valley since 2016, the results of which have recently been published as part of the upcoming PhD of lab member Ronja: plant species are moving up and down along these trails and plant species richness is higher along the trail than in the natural vegetation.

Since 2016, we regularly monitor the vegetation all the way from the birch forest at the bottom up to the rocky scree where only the lonely Ranunculus nivalis can survive. Picture Violetta Chernoray

We have been monitoring the microclimate along the elevation gradient closely, and again the valley gave us important information: the distribution of alpine plant species in the region was better explained by the soil temperature measured in-situ than by any existing macroclimate source.

And I could go on and on and on, this valley has been part of so many studies we have done, and of so much we are still learning. There is the master thesis from Lore from last year, which used data from this valley to dive deep into the concept of ‘dark diversity’, the absence of species one would expect to find. There is the work from Dymph who is investigating the link between the ruderal species in this valley and the ruderal species pool brought in already in 1903 when the regions’ railwayline was constructed.

The main river cutting the valley in halve. A particularly snowy winter, and you won’t find your bridge here yet mid-July, forcing you to walk all the way up and cross a quite part of the stream barefoot. Picture Tom Vermeire

So it should thus not be a surprise to her that I am pretty excited to see this years’ team hiking up the valley again, making it to the top for the famous wafflehouse between the rocks and along the road collect data on microclimate, species communities and now even bumblebee distributions, to keep our longterm monitoring intact.

The wafflehouse at the top of the valley. Picture Violetta Chernoray

Yes, we start to know this valley as an old friend, but its ecology still has a lot of secrets to reveal.

Part of this years’ fieldwork team enjoying the magnificence of this place. Picture Violetta Chernoray
In good years, the valley hosts a couple of skuas, magnificent groundbreeding birds that angrily attack anyone who ventures too close. Picture Tom Vermeire
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News from the field

It has been a roller coaster ride to get the whole team in northern Scandinavia, as you can read here, but now the fieldwork is on a roll!

Vegetation surveys in the alpine zone

That things are going well is testified by the pictures I am receiving back at home from the great fieldwork and breathtaking views I’m missing out from.

Thanks to the enthusiasm and efficiency (and also sheer size, with one PhD, 5 master students, a bachelor student and a part-time field assitant!) of the team, the work is progressing much faster than initially feared. That is a good thing, as this way we might catch up with the close to a week of delay we accumulated at the start, thanks to our flight and transportation issues.

MIREN roadside vegetation survey

For me at home, it is simply a blessing to see the Excel sheets filling up day by day with important data on the distribution of so many important plant species along our Norwegian mountain roads. The database of the Mountain Invasion Research Network will get a fabulous present with what we are finding here!

All pictures here courtesy of Violetta Chernoray

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Epic

What an epic week was this! The mountain part of The 3D Lab wanted to get to northern Sweden for an important summer of fieldwork, but the world was against it…

The team on its first mountain hike. An amazing group of young scientists which I’m honoured to show the beauty of northern Sweden

A massive strike at Scandinavian Airlines (they seem to be in big, big trouble, but that’s a whole other story) resulted in the consistent cancellation of ALL flights to Kiruna, for now already over two weeks in a row. So we had to come up with creative ways to get the 7 team members up there. After a week of delay, a two-day drive from Stockholm all the way up to the north of Sweden, and a well-timed pick up of a few team members at the nearest airport, we ended up making it. The live updates from that epic trip can be found on my Twitter feed!

Overnight stay halfway Sweden, in Umeå, enjoying the midnight twilight

But a bit of travel chaos was not going to stop us, as we were on an important mission: the tenth anniversary survey of my own master thesis project: the long-term monitoring of plant species distributions along Norwegian mountain roads!

Monitoring plant communities along Norwegian mountain roads

Every five years, the vegetation along these mountain roads gets resurveyed, to keep a close eye on how human disturbances and climate change together reshuffle plant species distributions. The master students will all look at a different aspect of that story, ranging from the potential upward expansion of non-native species, over the impact of microclimate to the interaction of plants with the local bumblebees.

Vegetation monitoring with a view

Now, I went for delegating: I left them – with a bit of heartache – to their work and travelled back home. But I trust they will do a great job up there, under the experienced leadership of long-time lab member Jan (it’s the 5th year anniversary of HIS thesis on the transect).

Already a trip of epic proportions, and likely one the team members won’t ever forget. Don’t we just look like the fellowship of the ring?

And obviously I’ll keep fulfilling my favourite role as ‘human plant ID-app’, identifying species over WhatsApp whenever they’re in doubt.

Two of our trusty research tools together: a microclimate sensor (mushroom on the right) and a pin-point frame for vegetation monitoring

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Final rehearsal

Yesterday, we took (part of) our team to the ‘Kalmthoutse Heide’, one of Flanders’ most impressive heathland areas.

The goal? Prepare for the upcoming fieldwork season in northern Scandinavia, where soon a team of 6 from our lab will go to resurvey our long-term plant community plots up there (and do a lot of other awesome stuff).

The students doing a ‘mock-transect’, following all the steps and processes we will take in the field, including plant identification

Such a preparatory day gives us the perfect opportunity to get familiar with the different monitoring techniques, the nature of the work and the time it will take. This way, we save a good day of trial-and-error when we actually arrive in Scandinavia, next week.

Additionally, we get a first glimpse of many of the plant species we will encounter in northern Scandinavia. It is actually rather shocking how much overlap there is in species between our Flemish heathlands and at least the lowlands of the northern Scandes. Ruderal lowland species like Trifolium (clover), Taraxacum (dandelion), Cirsium (thistle) and Poa (grasses), but also many of the more typical species of the area, such as Deschampsia flexuosa and several of the dominant tree species: Betula pubescens (birch), Pinus sylvestris (pine) and Sorbus (mountain-ash).

This gives the students – many of whom have so far very little experience with plant identification – a good plant species base when arriving in Abisko.

And, of course, it allows us to work together as a team for the first time, and me to get to know the new students a bit!

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An injection of mountain views

I got to spend a bit under a week in the city of Davos, in the Swiss Alps, last week (more on the what and why here!). With such a backdrop for a conference, we decided that an early morning trip into the depths of the Alps would be a good way to prepare for more scientific discussions.

View from the Fl√ľelapass – close to Davos

And did that not disappoint! The Alps are truly stunning in early summer, with their fields of flowers, stunning views and picturesque villages.

Little mountain village of Ftan

I quickly realized that I hadn’t seen enough mountains recently. As my research has increasingly been moving into the computer and out of the field, it was getting increasingly rare that I saw the mountains with my own eyes.

Microtopography above Ftan

So this post is here just to shamelessly plug in some mountain views.

June is for flowering meadows!

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