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Outside/Inbox: Are berries in N.H. ripening earlier because of climate change?

A cluster of blackberries. Four are still red, but one looks black, juicy, and perfectly ripe.
Martin LaBar
/
Flickr
Blackberries

Every other Friday, the Outside/In team answers a listener question about the natural world. This week’s question comes from Owen from Barry, Wales (United Kingdom).

Anecdotally, the blackberry season here in Wales seems to be getting earlier and earlier. Is New Hampshire experiencing climate-change-related fruit-ripening? And can anything really be done about it?

This probably isn’t a huge surprise, but: yes, fruit is indeed ripening earlier.

Walden Warming

The cover of Walden Warming, Richard B.  Primack's book. The cover is an illustration of a shingled shack, surrounded by trees, a flock of birds, and a monarch butterfly.
The University of Chicago Press
The cover of Walden Warming by Richard B. Primack

Dr. Richard Primack studies the effects of climate change in New England.

In his book Walden Warming, Primack studied Henry David Thoreau’s observations of leaf-outs and flower blooms, recorded nearly 170 years ago in Concord, Mass., and compared them to decades of contemporary observations.

“We found dramatic examples of how trees are leafing out about two weeks earlier [and] wildflowers are flowering about 10 days earlier,” Primack said.

Premature blooms can leave plants vulnerable because later frosts can kill the fragile flowers before they have a chance to develop into fruit. When frost kills flowers on orchard trees, like peaches or apples, this can also have an economic impact.

These changes aren’t happening just in New England and Wales. They’re happening pretty much everywhere, including in communities that depend on fruit for their subsistence.

Subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta

In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on the west coast of Alaska, berries are a significant food source for Indigenous communities. They also support large populations of geese, ducks, and other migratory birds, many of which people also hunt.

Dr. Katie Spellman, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, co-authored a survey study asking residents of Yup'ik and Cup’ik villages to share what they were noticing about berry habitat.

They reported earlier ripening times, which means that berry harvest season sometimes overlaps with salmon season. That’s a problem.

“If the berries and the salmon are hitting on the same weekend, what are you going to choose?” Spellman said.

An early berry harvest can be an issue of food-security, the survey found. The west coast of Alaska is a pretty remote place, and since most goods need to be flown in, groceries are expensive. While some residents live fully subsistence lifestyles, others work cash-economy jobs and only have time to pick berries on weekends.

Two blue-grey crow berries ripening in Alaska
JLS Photography - Alaska
/
Flickr
Crow berries ripening in Alaska

Adapting to changing berry seasons

Dr. Nicole Herman-Mercer, lead author on the same survey study, explained that one way to help the berry patches is to protect them with snow.

Since snow is an insulator, it can protect berry plants from the cold air. When there’s less snow than usual (perhaps also because of climate change), you might have to help gather the snow around the plants so that they don’t freeze and die in cold spells.

Another adaptive strategy is to maintain berry patches on both the north and south side of a hill. When the south side doesn’t produce as much fruit due to a hotter than average season, the north side should make up for it, and vice versa during a colder season.

Another idea is to grow a diversity of fruits by cultivating a food forest.

“There's winners and losers at any one location when the climate is warming… Plant a whole bunch of different types of foods in a community food forest, so that you can be ready for those changes,” Spellman said.

Other than these adaptive strategies, one of the best things to help berries and other fruits is to stop burning fossil fuels and to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Submit your question about the natural world to the Outside/In team. You can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to outsidein@nhpr.org or call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER.

Outside/In is a podcast! Subscribe wherever you get yours.

Felix Poon first came to NHPR in 2020 as an intern, producing episodes for Outside/In, Civics 101, and The Second Greatest Show on Earth. He went to work for Gimlet Media’s How to Save a Planet before returning in 2021 as a producer for Outside/In. Felix’s Outside/In episode Ginkgo Love was featured on Spotify's Best Podcasts of 2020.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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