Circumpolar Networks

The core of this case is the research program Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas (IEM), a major cross-cutting initiative of The Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (NIES), The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) and The Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance (GHEA).

Project Description

Research clusters within NIES, NABO and GHEA, in cooperation with partner networks in the USA, the UK and the Nordic countries, have undertaken a major interdisciplinary research initiative that aims to examine environmental memory in the medieval Icelandic sagas, with a prominent focus on historical processes of environmental change and adaptation. The medieval Sagas of Icelanders constitute one key corpus, among numerous other literary and documentary corpora, to be investigated in this initiative:

The primary goal of the project is to consider evidence regarding environmental conditions and changes during the period ca. AD 850 to 1500. The information gathered will be related to how the environment was memorialized in the Sagas of Icelanders. There will be a particular focus on evidence of anthropogenic change to landscape and environment and how such developments may have shaped the writing of the sagas and their socio-environmental preoccupations. The sagas were committed to writing in the forms now largely preserved for posterity in the 13th through 15th centuries. The project thus also considers how environmental and societal conditions during this time period may have shaped an understanding of the past, including cultural foundation narratives and environmental lore.

These sagas are being examined alongside other textual sources and data sets that pertain to the period AD 850-1500. This time frame approximately covers the height and subsequent decline of Scandinavian sea-faring, migration and society building in the North Atlantic as inscribed in saga literature representing the Viking Age/Late Iron Age through the late medieval period. The period encompasses: the first large-scale human settlement and inhabitation of Iceland; major changes to landscape, environment and climate; various cycles of social turbulence and relative stability; the rise and fall of the Icelandic Free State; the transition of Iceland from a heathen to a Christian society; the rise of literacy and development of a particularly rich body of medieval narrative literature focused in large measure on the history, communities and environments of Icelanders, Greenlanders and other Norse and Celtic derived societies in the North Atlantic over the course of several hundred years. This time frame also happens to cover an extremely interesting period with regard to climatic and environmental changes. The project will examine historical sources that contain evidence regarding these changes, while also drawing on climate proxy data (already analyzed) in order to examine the relevance of terms such as the so-called “Medieval Climatic Optimum” and the “Little Ice Age”.

With a solid grounding in the environmental humanities and social sciences the IEM initiative examines environmental representation in the sagas alongside environmental markers in a variety of other documentary sources, in addition to material-cultural and palaeoenvironmental data. The initiative seeks to foreground evidence of changing environmental conditions in Iceland, Greenland and Scandinavia from the late Iron Age through the pre-Industrial period, with a guiding focus on long-term human ecodynamics and the relations among ecological change and adaptation, on the one hand, and resource management, social organization/conflict and resilience on the other. Anchored in traditional fields of study (e.g. saga studies and various medieval-studies fields) as well as newer and emerging fields (e.g. integrated history and historical ecology, ecocriticism, digital and environmental humanities, etc.,), the initiative brings together literary scholars, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, geographers, digital humanities specialists and environmental and life scientists in a coordinated set of sub-projects.

Development of the IEM initiative

Exploratory and planning discussions among participating researchers from these fields began at the NIES V research symposium in Sigtuna (October 2011), intensifying throughout 2012. The time scales, and to some degree, the geographical scope of IEM expanded during this initial concept-development period, and this was true as well of the range of literary and documentary sources and environmental data to be drawn upon in the initiative. Additional geographical foci proposed (as environs engaged by the medieval saga mind) include Greenland and the American North Atlantic, Scandinavia and the British Isles. The possibilities for examining long-term circumpolar “environmental memory” by bringing documentary, material-cultural and palaeoenvironmental data sets into close comparative focus have expanded considerably as a result of the breadth of interest IEM has generated among groups of scholars actively working on Icelandic/Scandinavian/North Atlantic history, literature, archaeology, environment, and climatic change.

IEM aims to relate qualitatively-oriented literary and historical study of the sagas to other research fields at the material-cultural and scientific end of the spectrum, drawing upon data sets and collaboratively cross-referencing findings from each of these fields in unprecedented ways, aided in large measure by new digital-humanities and geovisualization tools that are transforming how scientists and humanities scholars communicate and work together. A truly interdisciplinary—or even postdisciplinary—conception of this sort requires that each of the core disciplines anchoring the initiative be given an equal stake in the program, including its execution and outcomes, rather than having their contributions be merely applied in the service of a particular research agenda defined by a (dominant) disciplinary perspective. Partners in the IEM collaboration share a core research philosophy: by relating specialist findings to one another in innovative question- and problem-driven ways specialist understanding can be qualitatively enhanced while also increasing our collective store of knowledge in a range of study areas. This approach is consonant with the principles of integrated science promoted by ICSU, ISSC and other international scientific organizations (c.f., ISSC’s Transformative Cornerstones report, 2012), emphasizing the need for integrating Humanities research in wider Social Science research agendas, and for integrating both of these domains in the kinds of research agendas previously undertaken more exclusively within the natural sciences. The principles of integrated science are in fact part of the organizational and methodological rationales underlying the long-awaited Future Earth program, to which IEM and other IHOPE cases have much to contribute.

IEM was launched in late 2012, with efforts to synthesize existing scientific and scholarly work of high relevance to the program, including identification and recruitment of strong researchers/research groups. In response to a call for preliminary project proposals, 28 abstracts for potential IEM sub-projects were received by the initiative’s planning group in October 2012. A number of these proposals are now being consolidated into a more manageable set of sub-project nodes. NIES and NABO began to collaborate more actively on the IEM initiative in conjunction with the CUNY HERC Open Workshop in Sustainability Science and Education organized by the Human Ecodynamics Research Center at the City University of New York, 15 October 2012. GHEA  joined the IEM cooperation shortly thereafter. Numerous IEM workshops have been organized jointly by NIES, NABO, GHEA and various university partners since the initiative’s launch in 2012.

In 2013 IEM workshops have been/are being hosted by the following affiliated institutions:

KTH Stockholm & Uppsala University (February 2013)
University of Aberdeen (February 2013)
Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies and Reykjavik Academy (April 2013)
NSF Science Engineering & Education for Sustainability program and Stefansson Arctic Institute, Akureyri, Iceland (July 2013)
University of Maryland (November 2013)
Mid Sweden University, KTH & Uppsala University (at the Sigtuna Foundation in December 2013)

IEM development work in 2013 is expected to culminate in several major bids for research funding to be submitted to research financing agencies in various national and international contexts between late 2013 and 2014.

IEM Executive Committee

Steven Hartman (overall coordinator for NIES)
Thomas McGovern (overall coordinator for NABO & GHEA)
Andrew Dugmore
Adolf Friðrikson
Viðar Hreinsson
John Ljungkvist
Karen Milek
Astrid Ogilvie
Gísli Sigurðsson

The IEM initiative is steered by an international executive committee. The committee consults with a Scientific Advisory Board made up of distinguished leaders in participating fields of study. Four supporting groups (still in the process of being formed) are intended to provide additional advisory assistance and cross-cutting resources to IEM sub-projects, while facilitating coherence and optimal communications among these projects and providing guidance on common standards and shared best practice. The four groups include:

Digital Resources: GIS integration, human and environmental models, data management and accessibility, data (including digital text) mining and mapping, topic modeling, geotemporal visualization and digital dissemination

Textual Analysis via Ecocriticism and Environmental History: coordinating the literary and historical (e.g. saga, legal, placename and folklore) analyses with focused ecocritical close readings of the sagas, working to optimize searches for environmenal elements in documentary sources and to map as comprehensively as possible environmental content/representation in the literary sources, balancing quantitative with qualitative analyses.

Historical Ecology, Historical Climatology and Comparative Human Ecodynamics: coordinating field and laboratory archaeology (including bioarchaeology, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, geoarchaeology, geophysics).

Integrated Science and Humanistic Study: coordinating integration of project activities and findings with the wider Sustainability Science and Education communities (including affiliated international projects such as IGBP, AIMES PAGES and IHDP), and engaging with the new Future Earth program, its sponsoring organizations and the scientific programs it is integrating (ISSC, ICSU, UNEP, UNESCO and UNU).

The four supporting groups are not seen as control mechanisms but rather as resource nodes that can serve multiple sub-projects. Typically IEM sub-projects will be linked to more than one of these four nodes / working groups.

Cross-cutting integrative tools and platforms

The international and interdisciplinary NABO cooperative (founded 1992) has long used maps and place-based analysis tools to facilitate productive collaboration across disciplines. Maps become increasingly useful tools for displaying diverse data sets and promoting the cross-disciplinary recognition of patterns in social and environmental factors that play out in both space and time. While hand drawn maps remain powerful tools for visualization (Figure1), their power increases exponentially with the application of GIS technology backed by highly detailed spatially-referenced data sets (archaeology, place names, historical route ways, past human and animal censuses, shifting power centers, areas of different vulnerability to climate change on different scales, etc.). As another way of inscribing environment and environmental memory, maps have tremendous potential as points of cross-disciplinary interface (even as a kind of methodological lingua franca), enabling greater and greater creative overlaying and stimulation of interdisciplinary conversation and understanding. GIS applications require spatially referenced data sets, and these are becoming increasingly available for Iceland from multiple sources including the FSI’s ISLEIF archaeological site database used in figure 2.

GIS output locating ruins and routeways in part of Eyjafjord based upon GPS location provided by the ISLEIF archaeological data base maintained by FSI. GIS courtesy of Kenneth Mack, CUNY.

Map-based presentation and display of a wide range of data sets is becoming increasingly important to international interdisciplinary data curation efforts as well, represented by efforts such as SEAD (the Strategic Environmental Archaeology Database at Umeå University) and the map-based NABO Project Management System. Digital humanities tools and databases can also help to map literary and documentary content so as to allow for innovative analyses of texts and new visualization techniques. In conjunction with other place-based mapping approaches these tools hold great potential for generating new knowledge; therefore those centers where such techniques are being pioneered (e.g. UCLA and Umeå University’s HUMlab) have come to be regarded as valuable potential partners / contributing research environments in the IEM initiative. Increasingly place-based digital information is connecting not only different scholarly traditions, but also science and scholarship directly with placed-based heritage and education for sustainability initiatives.  IEM will collaborate closely with the long–established community-based Kids Archaeology Program (KAPI) based in Thingeyjarsysla in North Iceland, which is already collaborating with NABO and the Icelandic Place Name Institute (based at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies). Read more here. This program has received widespread international recognition for combining heritage conservation with education for sustainability and will partner with the IEM initiative through NABO to provide direct community engagement in sustainability scholarship.

Affiliated institutions

The IEM initiative now involves participation of researchers from a large number of research environments, including the following institutions:

Mid Sweden University
Royal Institute of Technology (KTH)
The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)
Uppsala University
Umeå University

British Museum
University of Aberdeen
University of Durham
University of Edinburgh
University of St. Andrews
University of Stirling

City University of New York
University of California, Berkeley
Université Laval
University of Maryland
Western Carolina University

The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies
University of Iceland
The Institute of Archaeology, Iceland (FSI)
Reykjavik Academy
Stefansson Arctic Institute

University of Oslo
University of Tromsø


The Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies is devoted to interdisciplinary environmental studies, with a particular ambition to develop this research field within the humanities. The network is supported by NordForsk. Since its founding in 2007 NIES has grown from a group of a dozen researchers based in three Nordic countries to its present-day constituency of well over 100 researchers based at dozens of colleges and universities in five Nordic countries:

Anchoring institutions: KTH Royal Institute of Technology & Uppsala University

Anchoring institution: University of Southern Denmark—Odense

Anchoring institution: University of Oslo

Anchoring institution: University of Turku

Anchoring institution: University of Iceland

NIES consists of researchers whose work addresses environmental questions from numerous disciplinary angles; the fields of literature, history, architecture, anthropology/archaeology, philosophy, linguistics, geography, landscape studies and cultural studies are well represented in the network, whose foci include environmental integrity, stability, change and sustainability, as well as environmental ethics and aesthetics, as illumined at the intersection of culture and nature.

NIES has organized numerous international symposia and workshops on specific environmental research focuses since 2006, several of which result in peer-reviewed volumes of articles published by international academic publishers / university presses.  NIES-organized symposia, workshops and intensive researcher training courses have included:

•  Writing and Thinking about Nature and American Culture in a Comparative Perspective, Oslo, Norway, September 30, 2006
•  Nature Representation and the Geo-Environmental Development of the USA, Oslo, Norway, 10-11 May 2008
•  Counter Natures: Revising Nature in an Era of Environmental Crisis, Uppsala, Sweden, November 21-23, 2009
•  Green Oslo and Beyond: Investigating the Origins and Shaping the Outcomes of Green Urbanism, Oslo, Norway, June 7-8, 2010
•  The Anti-Landscape, Odense, Denmark, May 8-10, 2011
•  The Environmental Humanities: Cultural Perspectives on Nature and the Environment, Sigtuna, October 14-16, 2011
•  Advancing Theory and Method in the Environmental Humanities, Sigtuna, Sweden, October 14-19, 2011
•  Modernisation of Rural Landscape, Pori, Finland, December 12-13, 2011
•  Environmental Policy-making in a Dynamic World, Hornafjorður and Reykjavik, Iceland, May 15-19, 2012
•  Environmentalism, Spatiality and the Public Sphere, Oslo, Norway, September 27-29, 2012
•  Landscape, Environment, Emotion, University of Turku, Pori, Finland, 25-27 September 2013
•  Framing Nature: Signs, Stories and Ecologies of Meaning (co-organized with EASLCE), Tartu, Estonia 22-26 April 2014

NIES works actively with leading humanities-focused environmental studies associations and research environments to foster theoretical advancement and to build capacity in interdisciplinary humanistic environmental studies in Europe. Together with the Rachel Carson Center in Munich and the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm, NIES is co-organizing in 2012-2014 a series of workshops of pan-European environmental studies organizations (such as ESEH, EASLCE, ALSE-UKI, among others) and strong research environments in the environmental humanities to help build capacity, foster exchange and identify strategic research trajectories in Europe. This work has been ongoing since 2011.

NIES organizes the research series Studies in Environmental Humanities (Rodopi), which comes online in 2013 with an inaugural volume on The Anti-Landscape (ed. David Nye). Several other volumes are slated to follow in 2013-2014. NIES also leads the research-arts media outreach project Bifrost.

The North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation was founded over 20 years ago to attempt to cross-cut national and disciplinary boundaries and to help North Atlantic scholars make the most of the immense research potential of our damp and lovely research area. NABO has worked to aid in improving basic data comparability, in assisting practical fieldwork and interdisciplinary ventures, in promoting student training, and in better communicating our findings to other scholars, funding agencies, and the general public.

The NABO community is constantly producing material for publication and wider outreach. This ranges from material submitted to peer-reviewed academic journals, books chapters, monographs, excavation reports, laboratory reports, magazine articles and many others. You can find them here.

The The Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance is an organization of social scientists, natural scientists, historians, educators, students, policy makers, and others interested in promoting cutting-edge research, education, and application of the socio-ecological dynamics of coupled human and natural systems across scales of space and time.  GHEA membership is free and open for participation to anyone who registers and agrees to follow the GHEA rules.  They currently have over 160 members.