Wild berries are an important food source for indigenous communities in rural Alaska. Now, NEON field staff are monitoring fruiting and ripening of five species of berries at four terrestrial field sites in Alaska to support the Alaska Berry Future Project.
Predicting Berry Futures in a Changing Arctic Climate
Petrauski is a TEX Community Science Fellow, one of the NEON field staffers named to the 2021 TEX cohort. American Geophysical Union's Thriving Earth Exchange is an international organization that fosters partnerships between local and indigenous communities and researchers to advance community science shaped around local needs. Petrauski picked the Berry Future Project after researching several possibilities for community-based science in her Domain.
The Alaska Berry Future Project is a multi-year program led by Dr. Katie Spellman of the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. The goal is to close research gaps and gather data to enable better predictions of berry timing and abundance in the future. It is part of a wider initiative to develop community resilience for indigenous peoples in the face of a rapidly changing climate in the Arctic. Petrauski explains, "On average, rural families in Alaska pick between 19 and 75 liters of wild berries each year. Fresh produce can be really expensive when it has to be flown in, so local fresh fruit is extremely valuable to these families. With the climate changing so quickly in the Arctic, there is concern that berry availability could change in the future."
The NEON Alaska Berries Assignable Assets Project will start this year and continue for at least three years. Researchers will be monitoring five species of interest including crowberry, cloudberry, lingonberry, blueberry, and wild rose. The data will be added to data gathered by other researchers and citizen scientists to develop a fuller picture of berry fruiting and ripening in different parts of Alaska. Petrauski says, "This was one of the research gaps that Dr. Spellman identified; there aren't a lot of consistent multi-year monitoring data sets in the state. NEON is perfectly poised for that. We already monitor plant phenology for 20 species every two weeks through the summer, including these five species of interest. It was easy to add fruiting and ripening to our existing phenology protocols."
Reflecting on the TEX Experience
Lori Petrauski has been a field ecologist with the NEON program since 2017 and was named a TEX fellow in 2021.
What did you hope to gain from participating in the TEX Community Science Fellowship program? Were your personal needs met through the program?
I wanted to participate in the TEX program because I wanted to be able to focus on something more local and directly relevant to the community I'm living in. NEON is a huge, continental-scale program, and the questions we are trying to address are all big questions. This was a cool way to narrow my focus to something that is relevant to the people I live next to. I've been living in Alaska, near Fairbanks, for five years, and I also pick a lot of berries. One of my major goals personally was to be able to get to know other researchers in our community. This gave me the chance to go to the University of Alaska – Fairbanks and meet Dr. Spellman and other researchers working on the project. I've been able to be a face for the NEON program to the research community here. Now, I have people asking questions about what else we can do at the sites.
What skills, lessons or approaches from this experience have (or will) you apply professionally and academically beyond this program?
A big part of this project for me was just pursuing different routes of what a TEX project could be. It's very different from what I do day to day here at NEON. I was able to find this project through an existing group of researchers and find a way that NEON could help their initiative. I was able to take my knowledge of the NEON program and figure out how it could be applied to other kinds of projects. I also learned to follow my instincts and passions in science to pursue things that make sense to me. As a field ecologist, I mostly work in phenology, so the fact that I ended up focusing on berry phenology makes sense for me.
Did the program help build capacity for local engagement within your domain?
Definitely. I talked to at least a dozen people while trying to find a project, mostly through phone or Zoom calls. I've met a lot more people in the Alaska research community now. Having all those connections has already proven to be very valuable. As far as connections with indigenous communities, I've really leaned on Dr. Spellman there. She's been very involved in working with communities on their climate adaptation plans, listening to what they have to say, and figuring out what we can do to address their concerns.
In what ways did your project prioritize and support local community needs?
That was really the whole driver here. The Berry Future Project is an important part of the climate adaptation plans for these communities. They need to understand how berry availability may change in the future and make plans to replace or supplement these food sources if they need to. One thing I learned is that if we don't already have those relationships with communities, if we haven't done the outreach in advance, it's really hard to start from zero. It helps to work with experts in the field who already have those relationships and understand the needs.
What were or will be the outcomes of your project? What are your hopes for the community/project you matched with?
The NEON Alaska Berries Assignable Assets Project is set for the next three years. During that time, we'll continue to meet with our partners and try to be helpful in whatever capacity we can be. Ideally, I would love to see us continue the berry fruiting and ripe fruit monitoring for the duration of the NEON program. Three years is a great start for long-term monitoring and a super valuable data set to have. But if we are able to continue longer, that would definitely be of value to the project and the communities. And Alaska is definitely not the only place where the NEON program is monitoring phenology for culturally relevant species. It's really easy to add data sets like fruiting and ripening when we're already out there gathering other data. If we can figure out the culturally relevant species in other domains, it would be a cool thing to add. The value that is gained from these data sets is much greater than the effort we have to expend to get them.
Coming out of the program, what are your reflections on community science more broadly?
It is clear that there are a lot of opportunities for more connections to be made. I am grateful I was able to spend the time making those connections in my community and for the support I had from my managers to take the time to do this. It's been really rewarding to be part of the TEX initiative.