From Bugs to Archaeology to Sagas: Discovering and Integrating Data to Study the Long-Term Human Ecodynamics of the North Atlantic

Authors: Colleen Strawhacker

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Conference paper


The cyberNABO Project is designed to solidify a developing multidisciplinary community through the development of cyberinfrastructure to study the long-term human ecodynamics of North Atlantic. It builds build upon prior sustained field and laboratory research, rich and diverse datasets, and a strong involvement by local communities. cyberNABO is working toward integrating and visualizing data from across the North Atlantic, including data from paleoenvironmental samples, archaeological sites, and Icelandic sagas. This paper will present the ongoing efforts of the cyberNABO project, including initial data discovery and aggregation prototypes, as well as conceptual frameworks for how to best integrate diverse datasets.


A developing, multidisciplinary, and international research community has set its sights on understanding the long-term human ecodynamics across the North Atlantic: an ambitious task that requires the perspectives and expertise of people from multiple disciplines and a variety of datasets that are not easily analyzed in tandem. Additionally, this group, now known as cyberNABO, has identified numerous opportunities for outreach and complementary research with those outside of the academic research community. Visualizations, such as maps and videos portraying change of settlement locations through time, are an especially effective communication mechanism across perspectives. A research-driven cyberinfrastructure (CI) with strong visualization capabilities can support collaborations, partnerships, and outreach with K-12, undergraduate, and graduate students, the general public, and northern communities. Here, CI refers to the comprehensive infrastructure providing access to interrelated computer systems, data, and instruments, as well as networks of users collaborating on data gathering, monitoring, and analysis (NSF 2014). With recent funding from the National Science Foundation, the cyberNABO project was created to build CI (both in the form of back-end data management support for completed and ongoing research projects and front-end maps and visualizations to assist and inspire emerging research questions) for the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization.

The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) and its data

The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) is a loosely formed, bottom up consortium of researchers, ranging from climate scientists, to archaeologists, to Saga scholars, working in the North Atlantic to support collaborations and research communities around the long-term occupation of the islands around the North Atlantic, including Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. Because NABO researchers come from a number of multidisciplinary fields, this collaborative group has the ability to ask broad and deep grand-challenge questions, like those related to long-term adaptations and vulnerability to climate change. Due to its long-term collaborative success, NABO is not limited by actual data or scientific research to address these questions, but in the technical CI systems to effectively and easily discover and integrate data sources from transdisciplinary sources.

As such, cyberNABO was formed and funded with the intention to begin building CI to support the research, outreach, and educational endeavors emerging from NABO. cyberNABO focuses on and connects directly to the objectives of ongoing field and laboratory projects in the North Atlantic by emphasizing three interrelated research themes relevant to the Icelandic (and the rest of the North Atlantic) archaeology:

  • Long-term outcomes of Local and Traditional Knowledge (LTK) resource management systems of woodlands, wild animals, and grazing range management. Current research indicates millennial scale success stories in management of waterfowl and wetlands, managed draw down of natural capital in woodlands, and “near-miss” failures to sustain grazing areas (Hicks et al. 2014; McGovern et al. 2006, 2007). More work is needed to understand the interaction of local governance structures, local feuding, and the impact of the Sturlung Age civil war ca. 1240-64, facilitated by GIS overlays of conflict areas, centers of political power, and areas of agricultural productivity.

  • Impact of sudden climate change on community resilience and vulnerability. Current multi-proxy paleoclimate evidence indicates abrupt onset of cooling after volcanism in 1257 and sea ice impacts beginning 1275-1300, which combined represent the most dramatic climate shock in over 500 years (Miller et al. 2012). Still more severe climate impacts were experienced in the coldest part of the Little Ice Age (locally 1608-1665, Mann et al. 2009). Despite famine, disease, and accelerated soil erosion, Icelandic communities survived and maintained key LTK resource management structures in many areas (Streeter et al. 2012). New high-resolution climate impact models (PLACE vegetation model, JIM snow model) provide tools for projecting regional scale climate impacts onto the scale of individual farm holdings.

  • Effects of cross-regional contacts, trade, and governance on local resilience and vulnerability. Changing interactions between regional Icelandic chieftains, the Norwegian royal authority, visiting traders, and later Danish state all impacted local adaptive responses. Changing proportions of elites, independent farmers, tenants, and landless laborers had major effect on land use and provide potential for GIS and agent based modeling (e.g., Kohler et al. 2001).

These three interrelated foci both provide common targets for interdisciplinary research and data management teams and ensure that our initial products and first stage integrative tools will be directly relevant to these major regional research questions of broad interest and significance in the North Atlantic. While the initial CI plan and tools are being developed based on the Icelandic case due to the density of work already done in this region, tools are being designed to ensure that this system will be scalable to other datasets across the North Atlantic and beyond. With three workshops completed and three to four more planned, the group is rapidly moving forward to future proposal submissions and funding initiatives to expand the preliminary activities and successes to more tools and other regions of the North Atlantic. The lessons learned thus far have reiterated that open communication and collaboration between cyberinfrastructure and scientific researchers is essential in creating an effective and useful cyberinfrastructure system. While funding is needed to build a technical system and associated data products for the cyberNABO group, the emerging collaborations and initial products provide a solid base to build upon on future years.


This project is developing with the support of many researchers working across the North Atlantic, who we thank for their volunteered time thus far, and is supported by National Science Foundation Grant (SMA-1439389).


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