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September 20, 2023

A new Alaska CASC-supported booklet, the first in a series, summarizes what is and isn’t known about how climate change is affecting the prized northern cloudberry. 

In Alaska, berries are the only wild fruit in the region and berry picking is a popular traditional activity. However, Alaskan communities have observed that the timing of several berries’ fruiting has become less predictable in recent years, making it even more challenging to harvest. These observations raise questions about how higher temperatures, longer growing seasons, and snow cover change affect the plant’s life cycle. This includes the cloudberry plant (Rubus chamaemorus) which produces delicate orange-red berries that must be harvested carefully by hand. When ripe, berries remain on the plant for less than one week, granting berry pickers a short window to be in the right spot at the right time.  

The cloudberry is the first berry featured in a new series of "berry booklets" co-funded by the Alaska CASC and with input from the Alaska CASC’s tribal resilience liaison, Malinda Chase, through the Alaska Berry Futures project, in collaboration with the Institute of Arctic Biology and the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Bonanza Creek LTER.  

With hand-drawn color illustrations of the plant, high resolution photographs, graphs, and maps, the booklet compiles scientific and community observations about the cloudberry and what is known about how the plant is responding to aspects of climate change. It includes descriptions of known threats to the cloudberry, opportunities to preserve these fruits, and the identification of existing knowledge gaps about these berries.  

Warmer summer air temperatures may stress plants and decrease their ability to photosynthesize, while lower snow cover in the spring could provide less protection to buds and flowers that are developing belowground, and higher competition from shrubs. Yet, some of these threats could also be beneficial in certain contexts. For example, shrubs might provide shade to relieve cloudberry plants of heat stress. More research is needed to understand situations when this might occur.  

Furthermore, at least 12 climate adaptation plans from various communities in Alaska include concerns about cloudberries that revolve around: 

  • Lower food security caused by higher variability in annual fruit abundance. 

  • Difficulty planning harvesting trips caused by higher variability in fruiting timing. 

  • Higher costs and time required to travel to berry patches caused by the loss of patches to tree and shrub cover.  

These berry booklets can help resource managers plan for changing berry resources, serve as educational tools, and can help guide future research efforts to fill knowledge gaps. Stay tuned for future booklets in the series that will feature bog blueberry, lingonberry, salmonberry, and crowberry. 

This work is supported by the Alaska CASC Project, "Alaska’s Berry Future: Planning for Changing Resources in an Altered Climate." 

Additional News Coverage by KYUK: New 'berry booklets' combine traditional knowledge and science that Alaska’s berry pickers can use 

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