Picking berries, sharing them with others and, of course, eating them — on their own or mixed with other foods in a delicacy called aluk — are among the joys of summer in an Inuit community. Berries also play a crucial role in the Arctic ecosystem as a food source for various animal species. But despite their importance there are many unanswered questions about Arctic berry production, and this summer Noémie Boulanger-Lapointe, a PhD student in geography at the University of British Columbia, is working with Inuit in the Nunavut communities of Arviat and Kugluktuk to help find some answers.{break}

She is looking at sites where people pick blueberries, crowberries, cranberries and cloudberries to learn why some patches are more productive, how animals use them and how they are responding to climate change. “It’s important that people have healthy berry patches, for their own use and as food for wildlife,” says Boulanger-Lapointe. “They’re interested in knowing what effect climate change has on berries and how pollution is affecting their quality.” Her work is part of a long-term study that has been gathering and analyzing information on berries from Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, in collaboration with the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and Newfoundland’s Memorial University.

The young researcher is also giving local high school students some valuable hands-on scientific experience. “They’ll be doing research,” she explains. “They’ll be using standard science protocols — working in teams, picking the locations and doing random sampling, so their data can be analyzed along with data gathered by students in other communities. And we’ll also be collecting and analyzing droppings to find out which animals are using the berry patches.”

Boulanger-Lapointe is making full use of local expertise, inviting elders to share their knowledge about berries and the land with the students. “Most [of the elders] will likely be women,” she explains. “Berry picking was traditionally a women’s activity, and while many men pick berries nowadays, there’s still a majority of women.”

“This project is rewarding,” says Boulanger-Lapointe. “It’s bringing science into communities to serve community interests. It creates opportunities for researchers to connect with kids and talk about science, and for elders to teach researchers and kids about Inuit knowledge of the land. It’s a very rich dialogue.”

This is the latest in a continuing blog series on polar issues and research presented by Canadian Geographic in partnership with the Canadian Polar Commission. The polar blog will appear online every two weeks, and select blog posts will be featured in upcoming issues. For more information on the Canadian Polar Commission, visit polarcom.gc.ca.