Sunday, April 22, 2012

Coastal Alaska, Project BudBurst and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Towns in Southeast Alaska are nestled closely to mountain slopes right next to the ocean. 
Just a short walk from downtown you can usually find lush forests, alpine meadows and wetlands 
- a great  place to learn natural history and to track the effects of weather and climate. A rich history of traditional uses of foods in this forest and along the shorelines may provide additional clues to how this area is adapting to climate change.

Alaska is a land of extremes and often seems to be out of synch with what is going on in the rest of the country. This past week I had the opportunity to be up in  Juneau to see how spring is progressing up there. In contrast to much of the country, coastal Alaska as well as much of the Pacific Northwest east to Montana has had quite a cool snowy spring and winter.  It is a cool rainforest so this time of year it can be green even before new leaves or plants appear in the spring. Mosses and lichens can grow in the winter or early spring so give the forest a lush green appearance.

Observations of phenology with Project BudBurst in Alaska are particularly valuable for scientific studies since this area has had a dramatic change in climate over the past 30 years. Glaciers are rapidly melting and avalanche paths are being colonized by tree seedlings.  You can easily see the changes. Here in Juneau I made weekly observations of plant phenology long before Project BudBurst began, back in the 1980's-1990's. Project BudBurst observations today can be compared with these historical ones to see not only how fast things have changed but also to see how consistent the change is between species or stages of plant development.

This year the spring is almost as slow as what we saw back in the late 1980's with early blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium) starting to bloom in the past week or so and western skunkcabbages in full bloom. Several forest plants are starting to leaf out such as salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), and false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum).

In order to understand how much things are changing you need  a historical record to provide some basis of comparison. While attending a conference on Coastal Rainforest Ecology sponsored by the newly established Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center, I heard many interesting  presentations on the wide range of research being conducted on these unique forests. One point that was made several times was how closely connected the native tribes are to the seasonal cycles of plants in these moist forests.  The flowering of the skunkcabbage for example was used to determine the best times (often only a two week period) to harvest a special seaweed. When fireweed seeds start sending their cotton through the air is also a signal of a good time to harvest blueberries before they get infected by fly larvae. So many of these phenological events are used to look for subsistence harvesting, much like how observations of weeds or wildflowers is often used to determine when to plant seeds in agricultural areas. If we can start documenting the timing of these events this could be an important way to document changes in this forest. Are these plant phenology clues still an accurate way to determine when is the best time to harvest traditional foods? The Chugach National Forest is starting a new program in which observations of budburst are combined with nature walks. The Kenai National Refuge also has an active phenology program. More activities like this are needed to answer the many pressing questions of how plants in Alaska can adapt to the many changes occuring right now in this special place.

Today in Colorado it was over 70 degrees, with peonies, irises and other garden flowers beginning to come into bloom a month or more early. People are very busy putting in gardens and mowing lawns. What a contrast with Alaska!  The contrast between what you see here and the rest of the country is a great example of why it is important that Project BudBurst have volunteers  all across the country. Often it is the places that are the exceptions to the general rule that provide the key insights that may lead to new and important scientific discoveries. Only time will tell.

Paul Alaback

Photos (Courtesy of Paul Alaback)
View of Sitka area in Southeast Alaska.
Lush rainforest on Mount Roberts in Juneau last week. Only a few plants are sending out new leaves now, even at sea level.
Early blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium) is one of the first flowers that appear in spring, usually when ruby-throated hummingbirds first arrive in spring.
Salmonberry started putting out its first spring leaves last week.
Fiddleheads are an important local food in coastal forests. These are the most common species, called lady's fern (Athyrium felix-femina)

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