Dechen la’: The Land at the End of the Sticks

Bojana Drca ’20 is passionate about the environment. She is especially passionate about climate change.

“I know that the greatest impact of changes in the climate can be measured in the Arctic,” Bojana says, “and that if I really want to study and understand climate change, I should go there.”

And she did. With support from a Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowship, Bojana spent ten days last August at the edge of the Arctic working with two scientists from the Earthwatch Institute, an international, research-driven, environmental nonprofit built on a citizen science model. 

“I was the only volunteer on the research expedition to a subarctic region of the MacKenzie Mountains,” Bojana explains. “It was a very, very remote area. The nearest settlement was 200 miles from where I was, and it was an indigenous community of only 300 people. The experience was incredibly different from anything I have ever experienced before.”

The expedition base was Dechen la’, a remote lodge in the midst of tundra. “Dechen la’” comes from an aboriginal word meaning “the land at the end of the sticks,” and indeed, the end of the sticks—the tree line—played a crucial role in Bojana’s work. The lead scientist on the expedition, Dr. Steven Mamet, studies range limits of tree species at northern tree lines, and how climate and environmental change shape tree line dynamics. For the “G-Tree” project, or the Global Tree Line Range Expansion Experiment, Bojana identified seedlings of firs and spruces and recorded their growth in seeded and unseeded plots to establish reproductive potential. 

“The data I collected will be crucial in proving that warmer growing seasons can lead to a greater number of viable tree seeds produced and higher germination success, allowing the tree line to migrate further into the tundra, where it is harder for them to survive because of the harsh conditions,” says Bojana. 

Bojana also worked on an ongoing project assessing the region’s permafrost layer. Earthwatch has been collecting permafrost data from the Mackenzie Mountains for several decades, with the understanding that it holds critical information about the impact of global warming. Permafrost refers to soil that remains frozen—below 0 degrees Celsius—for more than a year. The long-term data from the area shows an increase of about 1.25 degrees Celsius in mean annual permafrost temperature. As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, the organic compounds in it begin to decompose, producing carbon dioxide and methane. The release of these greenhouse gases will amplify the effects of global warming. 

“They have been doing this for a long time,” Bojana says. “It is a 30-year project. They come back year after year to measure the permafrost in the same locations, which was what I was doing—probing the ground using a 200-centimeter metal pole and recording the permafrost depth. I could see the direct effects immediately. They showed me the data that has been collected over the years, and the trend is really clear: the permafrost is melting. What I measured could really be influential in future research.”

And while Bojana traveled north to study climate change, she also experienced it: at minus ten degrees Celsius, the temperatures at the lodge were the coldest they’ve been in August.

“This brought some of the wildlife down from the higher elevations,” says Bojana. “It was truly amazing to see—some caribou, and more grizzly bears than are usually seen in the area. There was no one there but us; it was nature in its purest form.”

Bojana is a Global Studies and Service Diploma candidate at Taft. Her travel was made possible in part by a Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowship. Robert Keyes Poole '50 Fellowships were established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft master from 1956 to 1962, and are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.