A new study from the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that when it comes to berries in Alaska, harvests are becoming more variable on a year-to-year basis, according to some observers.
The findings were published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, and were based on a survey that examined how Alaska tribal managers and local observer networks view trends in wild berry harvests.
Mike Brubaker, co-author of the study and director of the Center for Climate and Health at the Alaska Native Tribal Center, said berries make up an important part of many rural diets -- they're Alaska's only naturally occurring fruit -- but that resources are lacking when it comes to what berries are important to which communities.
The study helps relieve that, giving researchers an idea of where to focus in the future. Brubaker said it could also be the "first step" toward a better understanding of what might be going on with berry production in the state.
"It's kind of citizen crowd-sourcing," Brubaker said.
Lead author Jerry Hupp, wildlife biologist for USGS, said two-thirds of the study participants noted harvests of important berries had declined or become more variable in the last decade.
But overall observations were also varied, according to the survey. Of the 96 responses received from 73 different Alaska communities, even those in similar areas reported differences in their perceptions of changes to berry harvests in Alaska.
"This may partly reflect individual experiences with changes in berry harvests," the study said.
Hupp said the variation, even between regions, wasn't that surprising, since microclimates can often impact berry production.
He said that in order get a better indicator of whether or not the perceived changes were sustained or short-term, they asked participants whether they'd seen a decline over multiple years.
"Our question wasn't 'is this a good berry year?' It was, 'how was the last decade compared to other decades?'" Hupp said in a phone interview Tuesday. "They have the perception to say whether they've seen changes."
Retired University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulture professor Pat Holloway doesn't disagree with reporters' observations that berry harvests are changing, but said that the environments around the berries are always subject to change, and that can mean big differences in production. She said specific berry-picking spots can be variable due to natural fluctuations, so it's hard to say whether or not larger problems, like changing climates, are contributing to that.
"Certainly, change happens, but to blame something like, 'oh, berry picking generically is bad because of climate change,' is stretching things way, way beyond because it's way complex," she said.
For example, this year berries were reported to be abundant in both Southcentral and Fairbanks, but even that was dependent on where the berries were picked.
Hupp recognizes that issue, but said surveys like this can give scientists a better idea on where to target their research, particularly in finding out what the environmental drivers behind berry production are. If changing climates are affecting those issues, and scientists know climates are changing, then understanding those things could help mitigate issues down the road.
"Variability can mean bigger swings. So we have years that are very good and then we have years where they are not so good," he said. "I think that variability is interesting in itself from year to year and trying to understand what may cause that."