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A troop of researchers from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa is heading to a remote river valley in Nunavut this week to answer one of the most basic and under-investigated questions about the far North – namely, what's growing there?

Curator Jennifer Doubt sorts mosses being dried in bags. Western Victoria Island, NWT, 2010. Credit: Roger Bull

Data gathered by the four-person team along the Coppermine River, including hundreds of specimens that will become part of the museum’s scientific collection, should provide a detailed family portrait of plant life in an environment that is expected to be among the most affected by a warming climate and the gradual encroachment of invasive species from the south.

Dr. Jeff Saarela from Canadian Museum of Nature collects plants along the Soper River, Baffin Island in 2012. Credit: Roger Bull

“There could be major changes to Arctic ecosystems in the future,” said expedition co-leader, Jeff Saarela, a botanist with the museum. “This kind of documentation is absolutely critical to being able to understand how organisms respond.”

Canada’s northern tundra is home to some 800 species of “vascular” plants – a category that includes ferns, shrubs and flowers. While the number is modest compared to tropical regions where biodiversity is far higher, the plants of the tundra offer a revealing glimpse at one of the youngest environments on Earth, a region that was blanketed by massive ice sheets until just 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Jeff Saarela (left) from Canadian Museum of Nature with research assistant Paul Sokoloff with Eriophorum. Credit: Roger Bull

The month-long expedition is the latest in a series the museum has organized in support of its Arctic Flora project, which will produce a web-based reference that details the full range and diversity of Canadian Arctic plant species. When completed it will supersede book-based references that date back 20 to 35 years.

New discovery! The northern bog orchid (Platanthera obtusata). The Soper 2012 expedition marked the first time this species was recorded in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Credit: Roger Bull

“We know a lot more about the plants there since then,” said Bruce Ford, a plant biologist with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg who is not a member of the expedition.

Dr. Ford added that the project would not only improve scientists’ understanding of plants in the North but the animals that depend on them.

“Animals live in a vegetated world,” he said. While iconic creatures such as bears and caribou are typically at the forefront of concern when it comes to nature in the Arctic, “people often forget that [this wildlife] is based on the green plants that are growing on the ground.”

View of field camp on Victoria Island, Nunavut (2008), with plant press used to dry specimens and flatten them for preservation. Credit: Roger Bull

Dr. Saarela said the project will serve as a baseline for researchers tracking biological changes in the region for decades to come – and those changes are projected to be profound.

In 2011, a modeling study conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that the tundra could shrink by up to 2.5 million kilometres, over 40 per cent of its current size, by the end of the century. In some locations, the boundary of the boreal forest, known as the treeline, could advance to the Arctic Ocean shoreline.

The group selected the Coppermine River as a focal point for study this year in part because it emerges from the forest at a spot that is already near the treeline’s northernmost reaches in Nunavut. It will allow the team to study the transition from forest to open tundra and then tundra to coastline along a 40-kilometre stretch of the river, which opens into the sea at the small northern community of Kugluktuk.

Working in round-the-clock daylight above the Arctic Circle, the team will travel by helicopter to three locations – one just inside the treeline, another in the tundra within the boundaries of Kuklok Territorial Park and a third along the coast. From each base they’ll make day-long hikes to catalogue and collect the plants they find. Although the end result will be a thoroughly modern digital database that can include information obtained from genetic sequencing, the methods of collection, including plant presses for flattening, drying and preserving specimens, harken back to the 19th century when naturalists fanned out across the globe to catalogue life in all its forms.

“It’s certainly that frontier exploration feeling,” said Paul Sokoloff, an expedition member.

Dr. Saarela added that the expedition would help researchers characterize Canada at its wildest, in a location rarely seen and barely disturbed by human presence.

“This is part of the natural heritage of the country,” he said. “We need to know what’s in our boundaries.”