Using giant screws to reduce the footprint of Arctic research

By Geerte Fälthammar

In the early summer of 2021, a team of researchers and students screwed meter-long soil-screws into the tundra in Northern Sweden and Greenland. Now, one stormy –and even snowy- summer later, they are still standing. The goal was to tackle the problem of tripods that keep falling over, and that need to be carried up and down the mountain each season.

How does microclimate affect the timing of plant growth? That is the main question that I am working on during my PhD. The timing of plant growth, or phenology, is often studied by observing the plants in the field throughout a season. In this case, the observing is done by the camera. We spread these out over a mountain slope, to catch all the small differences in for instance temperature and soil moisture around the mountain. These small differences can have a big impact on plant growth. Each tiny Arctic plant experiences the climate right where they are, their microclimate.

Phenocam set up the old school way! Photo by Ulrika Ervander.

So a large part of my research project involves setting up time-lapse cameras in difficult to reach places. Each camera usually stands on a tripod. Due to the extreme conditions at our research sites we don’t want to have all cameras on tripods out over the winter, risking damage to both the tripod and of course the cameras too if the tripod falls over. Each season we therefore need to distribute all material out into our ecosystem, and then before the winter we need to take it back in. A very cost-intensive set-up which means that many people needs to be flown in for many days. This is not only a large cost for the project, but also a major impact on the environment. Wouldn’t there be a better, more permanent solution that didn’t require that much work?

The new and improved phenocam set up. Photo by Ulrika Ervander.

After some thinking, the solution was found in soil screws, usually used to lay quick foundations for fences or small buildings. They could definitely support a camera, and hopefully withstand the winter conditions in the arctic. With soil movement due to frost and melt processes, high winds and high volumes of snow moving down the mountain slopes, the soil screws could hopefully keep standing. Another benefit was that they are fully made out of steel, and with no moving parts. This means no plastic, recyclable and low maintenance, they are very hard to break. Once they are set-up, we can leave them standing for a long time, allowing for long-term monitoring at a relatively low cost. The only problem would be to get them into the ground. Soils in the north are often very shallow and filled with rocks. We would not be able to use these at all of our plots, but hopefully at most of them. As we weren’t sure beforehand, what percentage of our plots they would work for, it was a big risk!

In 2021 we could finally test them in the field. One batch shipped to Disko island, Greenland, another to Latnjajaure, the north of Sweden. After a summer of hard work we now have installed almost 60 soil screws! Our risk paid off, the screws went in easier than expected and provided a very stable base for our cameras. There are still plots with tripods, but since they are a lot fewer, we can now combine setting these up with collecting the data from our plots every season. This requires a lot fewer people and resources!

Field successes and data collection in action. Photo by Ulrika Ervander.

Making field research more sustainable is not an easy task. It often involves sacrificing time and money in researching alternatives to the current way of working, and then taking a risk to see if your new ideas work out the way you hope. Scientific projects are always limited by money, and as an early career researcher you often don’t have a large budget, or the right to decide about your budget. Creating possibilities for more sustainable research should be a priority of universities and other financiers in the scientific community. Now we are dreaming about the next steps on this journey! Maybe we could get a small wind turbine for the field station to generate more power? Or add solar panels to our cameras so they don’t use as many batteries? If you have an interesting, new idea, let us know!

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