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New 'berry booklets' combine traditional knowledge and science that Alaska’s berry pickers can use

Cloudberries are the focus of a new booklet out this month that includes information on how climate change is impacting Alaska’s berries statewide. Five more booklets are due out in the coming months.
Emily Schwing
Cloudberries are the focus of a new booklet out this month that includes information on how climate change is impacting Alaska’s berries statewide. Five more booklets are due out in the coming months.

A team of scientists at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks just released its first “berry booklet.” It's part of a larger project that digs into the future of Alaska’s wild berries as the climate warms.

Berries, regardless of species, are a huge part of rural Alaska’s subsistence lifestyle. They are often the only fresh, local fruit available in remote villages. Their value is not lost on the Alaska Climate Science Center’s tribal resilience liaison, Malinda Chase.

“Well, berries mean to me joy,” she said from her home in Fairbanks. Chase grew up between Anvik and Anchorage.

“To see your berry bucket get full, to know that this is part of our beautiful land. It’s food that is delicious, it’s something that we do as families, as communities, as good friends,” Chase said.

A warming climate means where and how people harvest berries is changing. And over the years, communities across Alaska have developed climate change adaptation and mitigation plans.

Two years ago, Chase’s colleague, University of Alaska Fairbanks Research Association Professor Katie Spellman, started reading them.

“Malinda told me: ‘you go read all the climate adaptation plans and start there, because that’s where the important research needs to be,’” Spellman said.

Among dozens of plans she read, Chase said that she only found two references to scientific research specific to berries.

“It made it really clear that the science on berries, which is a topic that Alaskans care a lot about, was not accessible,” Spellman said.

“Scientific papers are really hard to read if you’re not trained to read them,” said Christa Mulder, a plant ecologist at UAF. “They’re really dense. They’re full of difficult words, so what we decided to do is essentially a translation project.”

Mulder said that the team set out to learn everything they could about how climate change could affect the plants people care about.

Mulder, Spellman, and Chase held three listening sessions with berry pickers representing 50 communities. And this month, they’ve released the first in a series of six booklets. The aim is to blend scientific research with traditional knowledge and current observations on how climate change is altering where and how berries grow in Alaska. Chase said that it’s a good start.

“You know, we have so many beliefs and traditions around berries, and they’re so central to many of our family time together, our time on the land, and that is significant,” Chase said.

The first berry booklet, which is focused on cloudberries, was released earlier this month. Also known as akpiqs in Iñupiaq and atsalugpiaq in Yugtun, cloudberries are soft, round bright orange berries that grow on Alaska’s tundra. Many people also call them "salmonberries."

Spellman said that they’re fascinating.

“It has male and female flowers, and so if the weather during pollination time is off, then it’s gonna really affect how many fruits, how many berries, are produced in that year,” Spellman said. “I just think it’s a really beautiful and fragile berry that really relies on those pollinators.”

Those pollinators can’t fly in colder temperatures, according to the cloudberry booklet. But a warmer climate may help pollinators.

Mulder said that the team worked hard to make sure to include the potential benefits of a changing climate. She said that the booklets include advice on how people who rely on berries can help them thrive.

“So very simple pruning, for example, of blueberries can give a gazillion blueberries on a single plant. And that's not a solution for everything, of course, but if you have Elders who can’t go very far, having patches of forest where sort of cultivate, semi-cultivate, have a bit of a food forest could be a really good thing,” Mulder said.

Five other booklets are due out in the coming months. Those will focus on blueberries; lingonberries, also known as low-bush cranberries; crowberries, also known as blackberries; and red currants. They’ve already garnered so much interest that the team is looking at ways to combine all the booklets into one main resource.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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