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Using traditional ecological knowledge to understand and adapt to climate and biodiversity change on the Pacific Coast of North America

2019. Victoria Rawn Wyllie de Echeverria , Thomas F. Thornton  Ambio https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-019-01218-6

2019. Wyllie de Echeverria, Thornton

The authors tackle one of the most complex issues in climate change science and ecology – how to include a human element in identifying change including traditional knowledge of plants and animals. How can human experiences, languages and traditions be used to verify change, and how can the importance of these traditions be included in ecological studies of climate change.  One main goal, of course,  is to identify ways indigenous people can maintain customary uses of their region, in this case, coastal areas in Southeast Alaska, while adapting to broader ecological changes that occur in an ecosystem.  Participants in a survey noted weather pattern shifts in their lifetime such as more snow, more rainfall, as well as shifts in the seasons. The researchers also examined language patterns to learn about traditional words used for weather or activities related to weather such as “foods being dried in the sun”. They indicated that changes in plant use in the region was most likely because of land use changes (logging, land development) rather than specific climate change.

One case study examined changes to salmonberry and blueberry species that are considered keystone species because they are used heavily by locals and have a long tradition of use. The authors tried to make connections between people’s recollections, historical knowledge and current practices compared to ecological knowledge of berry picking sites, yields, berry quality and more. I think back to some of the experiments in ecology I have been involved with over the years. They are so complex, it is difficult to isolate a single or even a handful of biological causes for a particular observation. For instance, there are so many reasons why berries might not appear in a season (frost during spring, drought, too much rain, poor soil nutrition, predation, and on and on. Recollections might be due to any or a combination of these factors. Attributing them to climate change is tricky and challenging. Human knowledge might just add to the evidence, but as climate scientists will agree, it takes many, many years and a lot of data points to begin to draw conclusions.