Arriving at the upper boundary of our mapping area. Finnmark.
Boreal moor in the foreground with the Øksfjordjøkelen glacier visible in the distance.
Reflections on field mapping for the Norwegian Ecological Basemap Project
Written by Øystein Kristiansen ’17
In the summer of 2020, Øystein Kristiansen ’17 spent three months working as a field mapper in northern Norway. This is a short account of some of his experiences and thoughts.
We’re a month into the fieldwork season in northern Norway. It’s mid-July. A particularly severe late winter snowfall has left the mountains around the town of Alta still covered in white. Summer is short here at nearly 70º north. Three months, perhaps a few weeks more, and a few patches of snow might not have time to melt before the onset of the next winter. Short, but also incredibly rich. Plants, insects, and animals seemingly burst out of nowhere ready to do as much living as possible in the limited time they’ve got. The sheer flourishing of life is an astounding sight after months of seeing mostly shades of white, grey, and brown on the ground.
Our mapping crew is made up of fourteen people, all biologists by training except for myself. We’re one of several groups who are mapping nature types on behalf of the Norwegian State’s ecological basemap project, and for the past week we’ve been walking through dense grey alder flood forests along the Alta River, known nationally as an eldorado for salmon fishing. The trees are seldom more than six inches thick and eighteen feet tall, and grow in dense stands with lots of dead wood on ground recently covered with a blanket of fresh sediment from last month’s flooding. This one is straightforward: a definite T30, or “flood forest on firm ground” in normal language. I begin looking for plants indicating whether or not there is groundwater influence on the vegetation. A few ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and wood cranesbills (Geranium sylvaticum) walked past later, and I conclude that at least part of this flood forest is T30-C-3 (groundwater-influenced flood forest on fine sediment). I trace what I perceive to be the boundary of this particular patch of T30-C-3, sketching a pink polygon on an iPad as I walk. I note down key plant species to back up the choice of a particular nature type, and fill in a list of variables concerning signs of use by people or animals, amounts of dead or dying wood, and rare species found. I make a few notes for myself, write a brief description of the characteristics of the particular area I have just covered. I close the tab, and begin the same procedure over again with another polygon.
Our mapping is to be done according to a system under development under the leadership of the University of Oslo, called Natur i Norge (“Nature in Norway”, or NiN among friends), a plain name for sure. The system is designed to be able to classify everything that has a geographic extent in Norway, regardless of how “natural” or not it is perceived to be. Hence, the forty-five main types of terrestrial “nature” include everything from our oldest oak forest to newly paved streets, grey alder flood forests to arctic tundra, mowed lawns to windblown mountain peaks. And so the T30 flood forest mentioned earlier is its own type, the “T” signifying “terrestrial.” The purpose of all this is to try to get an idea of how much of these different nature types – as they are defined – there is within our national borders. The Directorate of Environment promotes it as “an important tool in planning and monitoring our present and future uses of the landscape.”
Each of these different types include subtypes along various ecological gradients relating to factors such as wetness, freshness (i.e. influence from flowing water), exposure to drought, lime content, intensity of use, fertilizer indicators, and so on, to make slightly different varieties of the type. The variety is indicated by an own number after the T(…). Depending on the nature type, some only have two subtypes, while others have more than ten. Semi-natural pasture, for example, is a tricky one with twenty-one subtypes. These can be a real source of headaches. T30 only has four subtypes, and so the job is relatively straightforward. The key is to identify what major processes are at play resulting in the expression of particular nature types, a form of pattern recognition that involves both large scale thinking and attention to detail.
And so the days pass, drawing polygons on the iPad, walking along boundaries, kneeling down to identify unfamiliar plants, picking up a number of them and spending long evenings with colleagues discussing unfamiliar species, mapping difficulties, and talking nonsense, as well as lots of reading and learning how to use the field manuals efficiently. And, of course, varyingly intimate moments with blackflies, horseflies, and mosquitoes, encounters with moose, sheep, cattle, and reindeer, landowners with questioning faces and more or less enlightening information, inconvenient marshes that need to be crossed, the occasional river that is really too strong, slippery, and deep to be crossed responsibly—but is crossed anyway—and incredible scenery.
Fast forward to the last week of July, and four of us are standing in a fjord northwest of Alta, in a valley below the Øksfjordjøkel glacier. We’re scratching our heads. There seem to be a number of processes at play that create a vegetation mosaic very difficult to fit into the NiN system. We get into these situations quite often. It’s no longer a matter of subtypes being difficult to identify. Sometimes the main NiN types just don’t seem to agree with what really happens on the ground. But our instructions are to map according to a system, and so we take a step back and contemplate which ecological processes are the dominant ones, determine which type is closest to what we are seeing on the ground, take a few pictures, and write a description expressing our uncertainty about our choice and our rationale behind making it. Thankfully, the mapping software has its own “Uncertainty” button that can be switched on. And uncertainty is certainly a substantial part of our work.
Any form of mapping is an interesting exercise in terms of the assumptions and values that go into the act, and working with the NiN system has continuously been stirring up new thoughts and realizations. Since the beginning, I have found the idea of standardizing our landscape into forty-five types problematic. Define the open patch of land on the gentle slope behind the Hansen family home leading up to the Kollaren mountain as T32 Semi-natural pasture, and it becomes a statistic with a defined area size roughly drawn on an aerial photograph, a certain number of habitat specific or rare plants found, and with a certain “quality” defined by a matrix with “condition” on the Y-axis and “biodiversity” on the X-axis. It goes from being a subject to an object, from having a unique identity to becoming a potentially replaceable part of a group. Of course, the reality is more complicated. But, these maps are to be used as part of planning processes, and representing patches of life as numbers and with a simplified five-step “quality” gradient does provide a level of technocratic distancing that can be problematic. As mappers, we also approach landscapes with a bias that it is possible to divide it into particular nature types. We simplify patches of vegetation to fit into particular nature types, and—interestingly for the northern regions our group is mapping— there is much more knowledge and data from the southern half of the country. This means that most habitat-specific and other indicator species in our working documents still are heavily based on the more southern regions. And the polygons we draw are only to describe what is within its boundaries, with little to no mention of adjacent areas.
There is also a bias towards mapping rare, endangered, or “particularly valuable” nature types. This is in many ways a sensible prioritization given the limited resources available for the project. However, one can also wonder what will happen with the nature that is not mapped. If it isn’t considered rare, endangered, or particularly valuable, does that make a nature type less important? Are we running the risk of thinking “Oh, well, we have so much of this kind of nature, it won’t matter if there’s a bit less of it,” only to wake up to more nature types joining the list of those rare or endangered?
The makers of the system make it very clear that it is a simplification of a much more complex reality, but also argue that having a map—however crude it might be—is better than none at all. This is a very fair point, and given the current mood in Norway, it does feel like this project is arriving just at the point when we are in danger of making all kinds of decisions about our landscapes that will have repercussions for decades and centuries to come.
I always found it interesting that during my time at Conway I quite regularly found myself arguing that Norwegians have an undeservedly good reputation for being environmentally sensible in their policies and actions. Having been introduced to NiN and heard some of its main architects present the system, I feel convinced that their intention is to provide the state of Norway with a framework that will give it better insight into what our landscapes actually are, and by extension enable decision makers to make better decisions about where to build, what to protect, and what activities to allow where. I applaud the intention. That is, I applaud the intention assuming that its aim is to protect ecosystems from more senseless destruction and to severely restrict developments that are argued for as necessary, such as mining, hydropower stations, and windmills. But it is just as conceivable that we are useful fools in a scheme that could take a cold statistical route in order to argue for what I would view as problematic. Power is power, in the end. But there are also plenty of people invested in seeing the system used for good.
It’s now the first week of September. We’re still near Alta, in one of the western fjords of the region, in a bay called Tappeluft. When clouds are not concealing the mountain peaks snow can be seen from the lower valleys where we are working hard to finish our last mapping location. It won’t be long before the snow starts creeping down the mountain sides. Large boulders on steep hills makes moving around difficult, and it’s hard not to slip on the wet lichen and moss that cover the rocks. Herds of reindeer run by, probably looking for the last fresh plant growth they will be eating for the next eight to nine months. I find myself envying them for the ease with which they move around in this terrain. Two weeks of nearly constant rain, increasingly cold temperatures, and batteries that are no longer cooperating is draining my immediate enthusiasm for the job. I look forward to sitting in front of a warm wood stove and staying in the same dwelling for more than ten days. And for once letting my bruises and cuts heal before new ones are made. But there is also so much to look back at, and so much more to learn. There is a real value to observing such a variety of landscapes and experiencing intimately how the region is changing through the season, both personally and professionally. I do have faith in the potential for our work to be used sensibly. The key is to make sure that it is available and understandable to begin with. Then, we need to have a serious, open, and public dialogue about what we are doing to our landscapes and what the long term consequences of our decisions will be. I have already let the company know that I am very available next summer.
(Information about the system is, unfortunately, practically nonexistent in English: https://www.biodiversity.no/ The maps are publicly available at https://kart.naturbase.no/ and the NiN layer can be found under the tab “NATURTYPER, NATURMANGFOLD”)