Climate Change Shifts Period of Ripening and Availability of Island Berries

Devil's club berries. Photo by USDA Forest Service Alaska / Flickr
Devil’s club berries. Photo by USDA Forest Service Alaska / Flickr

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

Kodiak researchers are in the midst of studying berry growth on the island and one biologist says climate change continues to have a great impact. Bill Pyle, the supervisory wildlife biologist for the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, says weather has influenced both the ripening and availability of berries.

“If you look at the climate record here, say in the Kodiak area for the state airport weather station, we find that over the last 12 to 18 months that our annual mean temperatures have been way above normal on the order of 2 to 2 and a half centigrade, and that’s a pretty significant shift in annual temperatures.”

He says a few years ago, from 2011 to 2013, back-to-back cold winters killed above-ground salmonberry bush growth in many spots. This year, after back-to-back warm winters, he says salmonberries and elderberries are ripening earlier.

“I’ve just noticed that over the past week, the elderberries starting to ripen here on the road system, and I know from my records last year because we were actually monitoring those species that we’re talking about a week to 10 days in advance of last year and last year was reported to be two to three weeks early compared to normal.”

But it’s not all warm winds and balmy weather here on-island. Pyle says a cold snap, which is a sudden decrease in temperature, could also minimize the number of pollinators getting into plants and flowers.

“And that may be partly the case of what we’re seeing with some of the spotty salmonberry availability here on the road system area. This year we see places where berries are extremely abundant and other places where you’ve got underdeveloped berries that are most common, and so there’s quite a bit variation in the quality here on the road system.”

In addition to studying elderberries and salmonberries, the researchers have also been looking at blueberries and devil’s club since they began the study in May 2015. Pyle says one way they’ve been monitoring the bushes is through time-lapse cameras they set up in the spring.

“At the end of the season we collect the imagery and we actually evaluate the changes in plant growth over time with special focus on the period when berries are available so we know when those berries have evolved.”

Pyle says the refuge and the Department of Fish and Game, the main organizations behind the project, are looking at pulling in more partners to analyze the time lapse cameras. He says that’s an idea they’ll develop more this winter.

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