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A newly-published article, by USGS lead author Nicole Herman-Mercer, addresses a knowledge gap surrounding the impacts of thawing permafrost and other climate-related changes on berry-producing plants in coastal Alaska. The Alaska CASC’s Ryan Toohey, Rachel Loehman of the USGS Alaska Science Center, and Cynthia Paniyak of the Chevak Traditional Council are co-authors on the study.

Image: Blueberry
Blueberry plant with berries in fall colors. Credit: Jerry Hupp, USGS. (public domain)

Arctic coastlines like those found in the state of Alaska are highly vulnerable to climatic changes, as these high-latitude areas face both terrestrial stressors and shifting oceanic dynamics. As a result, the vast and marshy Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) on Alaska’s west coast has become susceptible to the combined negative impacts of disturbances such as reduced snow cover, seasonal flooding, thawing permafrost, and sea-level rise. The YKD, which is known for its globally significant waterfowl and shorebird populations, also supports numerous indigenous communities which have practiced subsistence harvesting of the land’s seasonally available resources for thousands of years. However, climate and landscape changes occurring in Alaska impede ancient and traditionally important hunting and gathering practices of Indigenous communities, challenging traditional adaptation practices that have allowed these communities to thrive in harsh Arctic environments.

Berry-producing plants represent a key, culturally important resource for communities in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. In the YKD, these include blueberries, cranberries, and raspberries, and less typical varieties like crowberries and cloudberries.  Such fruits provide sustenance and offer health benefits due to their high antioxidant content. Berries also support ecosystem functions vital to local wildlife, like fueling bird migrations. Many berries grow on Alaskan coasts with frozen ground, or permafrost, and climate-driven changes taking place within these systems have yet to be assessed and documented. This study, by lead author Nicole Herman-Mercer and co-authored by the AK CASC’s Ryan Toohey, the AK Science Center’s Rachel Loehman, and the Chevak Traditional Council’s Cynthia Paniyak, fills this research gap by bringing to light the intimate understanding of changes observed in regional berry-producing plant dynamics known best by Alaska’s native communities.

Image: Crowberry
Crowberry plant with berries. Credit: Jerry Hupp, USGS. (public domain)

To carry out this research, Herman-Mercer and her team distributed surveys to four Indigenous communities in the YKD’s northeast region: the Yup’ik villages of Hooper Bay, Kotlik, and Emmonak, and the Cup’ik community of Chevak. Researchers aimed to identify any changes these communities have observed in regional berry production and then use this Indigenous knowledge to supplement regional climate model projections.

Results show that many participants from the Indigenous communities have observed regional changes in berry fruiting cycles and abundance, and also in the habitats of common berry-producing plants. Most respondents also noted hotter summer temperatures and a decrease in winter snowpack as potential drivers of changes in berry production. According to current regional climate projections, winter temperatures in Alaska are expected to increase in the future, which could further exacerbate problems with berry availability. A potential next step for improving our understanding of berry dynamics in the region would be the implementation of a community-based berry monitoring program. This information could then be integrated with modeling data to predict the potential future impacts of changing environmental conditions on this culturally important resource.

For a copy of this article, please email Nicole Herman-Mercer at

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