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NIBIO map of timber volume at Svartediket, Bergen, Norway (2023)

Forests as Environmental Media

From 12-13 September 2023, the Bergen Center for Electronic Arts (BEK) hosted Jennifer Gabrys for a participatory workshop and walk on smart forest technologies. Joined by visual artists, architects, ecologists, and sound artists, the group explored different ways of engaging with computation across digital, organismal, and ecological processes.

Forests as Environmental media workshop, with view of remote sensing maps, Bergen Center for Electronic Arts, 2023.

Forests as Environmental media workshop, with view of remote sensing maps, Bergen Center for Electronic Arts, 2023.

During the workshop on 12 September, we first considered processes of computing forests and forests that compute by looking at the proliferation of digital technologies that monitor and manage forests while also asking how forests vegetalize technology. We looked at smart forest examples including Forestry 4.0 proposals in Norway and beyond. We listened to Smart Forests Atlas Radio episodes on mapping , monitoring , and predicting deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. From this material, we discussed how a pluralistic range of digital technologies and sensing practices constitute different and forest worlds. We asked how the Norwegian forest could be identified, located, and experienced. We also workshopped different ideas for forest sensing toolkits that we could make, bring, or propose for documenting and detecting different forest conditions.

Forests as Environmental media workshop, participants developing forest sensing toolkits, Bergen Center for Electronic Arts, 2023.

Forests as Environmental media workshop, participants developing forest sensing toolkits, Bergen Center for Electronic Arts, 2023.

During the second day of our event, we took a walk in Bergen at the Svartediket forest area. We brought a variety of forest sensing toolkits and a drone to test on the site. We also met with Gro Kampp Hansen, Senior Advisor and forestry expert at Statsforvaltaren i Vestland, who described current forest land-use practices and the role of technology in guiding management decisions, especially through the use of remote sensing data and maps. As Gro noted, at the Svartediket site, the land was gradually deforested and not able to regenerate due to grazing animals. When these activities eventually declined, forests began to regenerate. At the same time, a mass tree-planting campaign was initiated to create a timber supply for the area. Spruce was planted and grew well due to the high amount of rainfall. Now, about 15 percent of Vestland is managed forest that has been planted with spruce, and these constitute 95 percent of forests in the area. There are several different forest areas in this location, some of which are more commercially viable than others.

Drone view of Bergen Foresters walking at Svartediket, as part of the Forests as Environmental Media workshop, Bergen Center for Electronic Arts, 2023.

Drone view of Bergen Foresters walking at Svartediket, as part of the Forests as Environmental Media workshop. Drone footage by Thomas Bugaj with Bergen Center for Electronic Arts (BEK) and Smart Forests, 2023. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Stop 1: Satellite forests

At the first forest sensing stop, we started the farthest away from Earth with satellites. We heard from Gro about the use of remote sensing data to identify trees for harvest. With infrared light, it is possible to document rates and types of photosynthesis, while also identifying different tree species. This is especially useful for locating trees such as sitka spruce, which can overtake other ecosystems. Statsforvaltaren i Vestland uses remote sensing data to identify harvest sites. On a national level, harvest sites are compared to biodiversity hotspot data, and to analyze whether tree replanting has taken place after a harvest. The aim of the county governor's office is to make sure "productive forest is followed by productive forest," and that timber is available for future generations. If replanting does not occur, this will lead to the eventual lack of timber, even though forest owners find replanting to be an additional cost to bear. The most common species planted in this area is Norway spruce, but it is not native in Vestland, where pine and broadleaf forests would most commonly be found. We reviewed a NIBIO map of Svartediket that used remote sensing data to document harvest sites. However, when standing next to documented harvest sites we found that these were full of trees. Here, at our first stop, we already noted a discrepancy between the satellite view and the view from the ground. We also learned that from this satellite view, "volume is value ," and tree density can indicate how commercially viable a site is for harvesting.

View of NIBIO harvest sites map at Svartediket, Bergen. Produced by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

View of NIBIO harvest sites map at Svartediket, Bergen. Provided by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

Stop 2: Orthophoto forests

At the second site, we looked at orthophotos developed from aerial imagery, which can be especially useful to measuring true distances, including tree height. The different shades of green on the orthophoto indicate different tree planting areas, as well as locations that might be more mature and ready for harvest. The location and extent of trees in this area is also important as Svartediket is the drinking- water reservoir for Bergen, and so vegetation is important for slope stabilization and to avoid erosion and avalanches. Orthophotos can be an important way to provide additional detail that satellite data might not be able to provide, depending upon the dataset.

Orthophoto of Svartediket, Bergen, Norway (2023). Produced by Gro Kampp Hansen

Orthophoto of Svartediket, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

Stop 3: Laser forests

At our third stop, we compared a lidar-produced map of tree heights, which would be a good indication of the age and volume of the trees, and their likely value. This allows the county governor's office to estimate the likely value of the forest stand, which they can share with landowners. As we learned, many of the map makers are located in the East of Norway, identifying and analyzing the forest structure. These map makers rarely visit the forests they analyze, and take decisions on the basis of remote sensing data, lidar imagery, and other datasets. They identify tree species, make borders around tree stands, and send the data to mapping companies, which then are sent into the field to make recommendations for forest owners. As we stood at this site near the Svartediket lake, we could see different tree stands, including spruce and birch that had naturally regenerated. Forest mappers make recommendations for forest managers, often on a time cycle of every 20 years, but landowners need to buy the plans to guide their decisions. There are around 16,000 land owners just in Vestland, and their land plots are often narrow with small plots of trees. These landowners are often not highly experienced with forestry as a result but there are some movements toward creating local councils for forestry management and timber organizations among landowners to enable more collective decisionmaking and identify goals for the forest. The plans that Statsforvaltaren i Vestland helps to organize and fund are meant to facilitate these processes.

Lidar model of tree heights at Svartediket, Bergen, Norway. Produced by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

Lidar model of tree heights at Svartediket, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

Stop 4: Interoperable forests

At stop four, we looked at "operator maps," which are produced by programs that collate and synthesize data on biodiversity hotspots, cultural heritage , water sources, landslide sites, and many other factors that can affect harvesting decisions. We specifically investigated an ALLMA map of data at Svartediket, Bergen, Norway. We looked at water collection sites, which would also influence how harvesting operations take place. The map data is used in an iterative way to also document where operators have undertaken harvesting activities. While we moved through the different map layers on a tablet and then phone, we realized how easy it would be to get lost in the forest when power supplies, GPS, and mobile networks run out or are not accessible. The interoperable data forest is most likely one that is accessed from remote locations, and includes a very distinct set of data points to guide harvesting decisions.

Allama map of data considered by harvest buyers, showing Svartediket, Bergen, Norway. Produced by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

Allama map of data at Svartediket, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

Stop 5: Participatory forests

At our final stop, we considered other forms of sensing and computing that remote sensing datasets might not include. Along our walk, we undertook a range of sensing practices, including testing running water along a rock face for pH, tuning into the ways that organisms can act as antennae and transmit electromagentic frequencies, and considering how mosses, lichens, trees, and other organisms bioindicate environmental pollution and changes. We also discussed how different forms of intelligence could inform how we constitute worlds, and how AI techniques are now increasingly using a vast range of environmental sensor and related data to build digital twins, predict environmental changes, and even set different conditions for environmental management. Over the next few weeks, and as part of "The Only Lasting Truth Is Change" symposium and workshop series, we will continue to speculate, compile, and propose different approaches to sensing and building forest worlds.

Vegetable-based litmus test for sensing pH in forest soil and water. Developed by David Rios. Photo by Bergen Center for Electronic Arts, 2023.

Vegetable-based litmus test for sensing pH in forest soil and water. Developed by David Rios. Photo by Bergen Center for Electronic Arts, 2023.

Turning moss into an antenna for detecting electromagnetic frequency. A sensing toolkit developed by Robin Everett, 2023.

Turning moss into an antenna for detecting electromagnetic frequency. A sensing toolkit developed by Robin Everett, 2023.

Forest Sensing Library

A short selection of texts that inform the BEK workshop and walk

Bennett M. M., Chen J. K., Alvarez León L. F., and C. J. Gleason. 2022. “The Politics of Pixels: A Review and Agenda for Critical Remote Sensing.” Progress in Human Geography 46 (3): 729–52. https://doi.org/10.1177/03091325221074691.

Chazdon R. L., Brancalion P. H. S., Laestadius L., Bennett-Curry A., Buckingham K., Kumar C., Moll-Rocek J., et al. 2016. “When is a Forest a Forest? Forest Concepts and Definitions in the Era of Forest and Landscape Restoration.” Ambio 45 (5): 538–50. https://doi.org/10/f85w6m.

Gabrys, Jennifer. Citizens of Worlds: Open-Air Toolkits for Environmental Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. Open-access text and project materials available on Manifold.

Gabrys, Jennifer. “The Forest That Walks: Digital Fieldwork and Distributions of Site.” In the special issue, Critical Walking Methodologies and Oblique Agitations of Place. Qualitative Inquiry 28, no. 2 (2022): 228-235.

Gabrys, Jennifer. Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (University of Minnesota, 2016): https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/program-earth.

Gabrys, Jennifer. “Sensing Lichens: From Ecological Microcosms to Environmental Subjects.” In the special issue, The Wretched Earth: Botanical Conflicts and Artistic Interventions. Third Text 151, vol. 32, no. 2 (2018): 350-367. DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2018.1483884.

Gabrys J. 2020. “Smart Forests and Data Practices: From the Internet of Trees to Planetary Governance .” Big Data and Society 7 (1): 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951720904871.

Gabrys, Jennifer, Michelle Westerlaken, Danilo Urzedo, Max Ritts, and Trishant Simlai. “Reworking the Political in Digital Forests: The Cosmopolitics of Socio-technical Worlds.” Progress in Environmental Geography 1, nos. 1-4 (2022): 58-83. DOI: 10.1177/27539687221117836.

Goldstein J. E. 2019. “The Volumetric Political Forest: Territory , Satellite Fire Mapping, and Indonesia’s Burning Peatland.” Antipode 52 (4): 1060–82. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12576.

Helmreich S. 2011. “From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures.” Social Research 78 (4): 1211–42. https://doi.org/10.1353/sor.2011.0042.

Latulippe N., Klenk N. 2020. “Making Room and Moving Over: Knowledge Co-Production, Indigenous Knowledge Sovereignty and the Politics of Global Environmental Change Decision-Making.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 42: 7–14. https://doi.org/10/ghgssh.

Peluso Nancy Lee, Vandergeest Peter. 2020. “Writing Political Forests.” Antipode 52 (4): 1083–103. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12636.

Vurdubakis T., Rajão R. 2020. “Envisioning Amazonia: Geospatial Technology, Legality and the (Dis)Enchantments of Infrastructure.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 5 (1): 81–103. https://doi.org/10.1177/2514848619899788.

Westerlaken, Michelle, Jennifer Gabrys, and Danilo Urzedo. “Digital Gardening with a Forest Atlas: Designing a Pluralistic and Participatory Open-Data Platform.” In PDC ‘22: Proceedings of the 17th Participatory Design Conference 2022 – Embracing Cosmologies: Expanding Worlds of Participatory Design, Vol. 2 (August 2022), 25-32. DOI: 10.1145/3537797.3537804.

Westerlaken, Michelle, Jennifer Gabrys, Danilo Urzedo, and Max Ritts. “Unsettling Participation by Foregrounding More-Than-Human Relations in Digital Forests.” Environmental Humanities 15, no. 1 (2023): 87–108. DOI: 10.1215/22011919-10216173.


Header image: NIBIO map of timber volume at Svartediket, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Gro Kampp Hansen, 2023.

Smart Forests Atlas materials are free to use for non-commercial purposes (with attribution) under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. To cite this story: Gabrys, Jennifer and the Bergen Foresters, "Sensing a Norwegian Forest," Smart Forests Atlas (2023), https://atlas.smartforests.net/en/stories/sensing-a-norwegian-forest.

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NIBIO map of timber volume at Svartediket, Bergen, Norway (2023)