Conference Recap: Oikos Norway 2021

The Norwegian Ecological Society/Norsk økologisk forening held its Oikos Norway 2021 online conference on May 5-6, welcoming more than 300 attendees from around the world. Titled “The decade of restoration—nature management for the future,” the conference referenced the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) and explored that theme with an array of virtual events including keynotes, posters, flashtalks, and flashtalk reflections, interspersed with music and photography. The society also held its annual general assembly for members.



Behind the scenes was a diligent committee of five ecologists (Inger Auestad, Liv Norunn Hamre, Knut Rydgren, Marianne Nilsen, and Stein Joar Hegland) affiliated with the department of environmental sciences at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences—all located at the Sogndal campus, where the conference would have taken place if not for the pandemic. “They did a magnificent job,” said society chair Kari Anne Bråthen. “We as participants were given ample opportunity to interact and discuss the science,” Bråthen said, commenting that the atmosphere felt like “being part of more than a digital conference.”

The event got a running start on May 4 with a pre-conference workshop for early career researchers on “How to make yourself and your science visible,” presented by Ragnhild Gya, Sonya Geange, Sara Hocevar, and Vitalija Bartuseviciute. Continuing the momentum was a pre-conference excursion—pandemic-style—organized with the help of local folk musician Kari Malmanger. “Kari solved this challenge in an excellent way,” said organizer Inger Auestad. “She brought her camera up to her summer farm in the nearby Sogndalsdalen, 700 meters above sea level, and recorded three traditional folk tunes,” setting a convivial tone for the upcoming events.



And then came the science! For this, we turn the podium over to NØF board member Anders Frugård Opdal, who took notes on two packed days of restoration ecology keynotes and flashtalks over May 5 and 6. Read onward for his insights if you were not able to attend (or relive the highlights if you were). Also be sure to check out the Twitter hashtag #OikosTogether, which compiles tweets from this and all five conferences hosted this spring by the national societies of the Nordic Society Oikos.

Day One Report

Wednesday morning started with some fantastic folk tunes and inner Sogn panoramas, before keynote speaker Dagmar Hagen gave us a panoramic view of the history, challenges, and current status of both the societal and scientific aspects of restoration. Apparently, we are a bit slow, internationally. Despite plenty of good intentions and subjective feeling of success, there is a long way to go in terms of scientifically separating success from failure in restoration ecology. Luckily, most of the conference speakers did their best to make that road there shorter—often with Dagmar as supervisor or partner.

Life at high latitudes or elevation is slow, and restoration payoffs require patience. Siri Lie Olsen presented some glimmers of hope after four years of top-soil replacement research in Svalbard, and Knut Rydgren together with two bachelor students predicted full recovery never, soon, or in 149 years, depending on method, species, or ecological circumstances. It turns out that ecological predictions are hard. Catharina Vloon found striking differences in the restoration effect of seeding grass or willow in the alpine areas of Hjerkin. Also there, things grow slow, but Catharina is young, and might live to see the full effect.

Albeit being a bit on the slow side, internationally, at least our Caledonian friends in the fourth world like us. Duncan Halley proposed a new world order and gave insightful views on the old world funding gaps and how to circumvent them. And isn’t that Dagmar making an appearance in the Scottish Cairgorns, the astonishing and privately run restoration project led by Jeremy Roberts. The time frame? 200 years!

Private money was also a factor in Sølvi Wehn's presentation of how to restore a bog after a windmill construction. Who pays for the monitoring, and how do we know when a site is restored? Nobody knows, because there are few reference points and incentives for monitoring. The topic was the centre of discussion in the later breakout discussion.

On the marine side, keynote speaker Peter Haugan gave us the satellite perspective of the state of the oceans. The ocean is tricky to manage, and also to restore. However, people can be managed, and if we do things cleverly, we can even get more food out of the ocean while at the same time bring it back to a healthy state. Who can say no to that? Zooming in from Peter's satellite, Sara Hocevar is reconstructing the entire Skagerak food web – with three equations! I can’t wait to see the continuation of her PhD.

And that was it for the marine. We are back on land, and to Eeva Soininen’s amazing Arctic research compilation, which was not a review. Interestingly, researchers are biased in picking their study organism and site. Reindeer and caribou are the most commonly studied herbivore with overall gravitation towards Troms, Finnmark and Svalbard. Next is Maria Toumi—studying reindeer. In Finnmark. Several reindeer populations are in decline, but that does not seem to influence the Empetrum abundance.

Jeremy plans for 200 years of restoration. Nina Eide is already halfway there, building on a 100-year history of Arctic fox restoration. Climate warming is working against them, and a lot of red foxes must die, but the goal of a viable population is within reach, and it’s predicted to be less than 100 years away. Climate warming is also working against the permafrost and threatens to release its enormous carbon and methane stores. Inge Althuizen elegantly demonstrated how to draw knowledge from discontinuous permafrost sites to estimate carbon and methane release rates, depending on future climate scenarios. From the Finse field site, Ruben Eric Roos took a look back and demonstrated the great advantages of sticking to your guns and building a long continuous time series of meticulous detail from the same site. The point was echoed in a later break-out discussion and the next day's keynote.

In the last, but not the least presentation on day one, Ronja Wedegärtner showed us the effect of foot trails: how they facilitate human, animal, and plant movement—and may even increase species diversity.


Day Two Report

On day two we woke up to black coffee and Western Norwegian heavy metal, before a nervous Inger Auestad introduced the missing keynote speaker, John Linnell. He turned up just in time, and gave us the long lines of 150 years of European ungulate and apex predator restoration. The managing of human behaviour has enabled most of these species to return—without help (no Arctic foxes in this analysis). However, the return of wild animals creates conflict. As it turns out, we now have to share habitats and utmark with these creatures. It must be so, says John Linnell. Restoration ecologists should embrace this fact and run with it.

Ivar Herfindal zoomed straight into the road verge. Are they ecologically significant? Yes, the road verges are an important contributor to the seminatural grassland connectivity – convenient, since all seminatural grassland happen to have roads nearby. Seamlessly, Markus Sydenham draws our attention to the solitary bee living in this same habitat? Based on statistical relationships, Markus constructed a model that predicts the solitary bees ideal habitat. Astonishingly, the model seems to work, and can be used to identify where management action is best spent. Equally astonishing was how Ross Wetherbee managed to squeeze his entire PhD into a 6 minutes talk on the ecological aspects of veteran oaks. My head was about to explode, but I did catch that solitary oaks have lower beetle species richness and diversity, and that complex community composition increased decomposition rates.

Over to spiders, Jérémy Monsimet taught us how spiders move and disperse. Sailing, rowing, running, walking, ballooning, and rappelling. In his lab, Jeremy found that specialist and generalist spiders have different propensities for movement, and can predict where these might disperse in the future.

While most ecologists are stuck in the nitty gritty details of their own little patch of moss, Sonya Geange demonstrated how all this small scale ecology can be utilized and scaled up into global ecosystem models. When working well, the model can be used as experimental labs with large-scale results and long term climate predictions unachievable in the field. Climate prediction is also the topic of Ragnhild Gya, looking at functional traits in space to predict shifts in plant communities over time in western Norway. Shift in plant trait composition is coherent both with space-for-time and time, suggesting good possibility for predicting future trait composition.

But why stop in western Norway when you can compare samples from Svalbard to Morocco? Karoline Helene Aares showed results from soil switching experiments on graminoids and forbes along this gradient. The take-home message: plants tend to prefer their own soil, and perhaps this can be good news in slowing down species invasion from climate change.

–Anders Frugård Opdal


Conference Conclusion

To conclude our recap of the conference, we present a paraphrased summary of the closing remarks from NØF board member Knut Rydgren, below. Many thanks to all who presented, participated, and shared the conference experience on social media. We are already looking forward to the 2022 NSO conference in Aarhus, Denmark, as well as the 2023 Oikos Norway conference—just announced to take place in Ås, Norway, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

Ecological knowledge is important—now perhaps more than ever. There have been moments in history that made large changes in our perspectives; in the decade we have just entered, we have the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Having destroyed or degraded much nature, we humans are now trying to repair or restore it. However, as John Linnell and others have pointed out during the conference, more than ever we must avoid destroying what is left. Perhaps we need to protect far more nature against man’s detrimental activities – perhaps “half the earth,” as proposed by E.O. Wilson. As an example, in Norway the government has initiated and funded restoration of degraded peatland the last five years. But it doesn’t help restoring a handful of peatlands when, at the same time, the planned new road alignment for E39 will destroy thousands of peatlands! Restoration should not be an excuse to destroy.

This conference has demonstrated Norwegian Ecological Society holds a valuable resource: the bright and engaged young ecologist that brings on new ideas and initiatives. This goes for Ragnhild Gya and colleagues who organised a pre-conference meeting for young ecologists, that attracted every third attendee! We as ecologists should be more engaged in how to impact politics. How can we play a more important role in the way the community develops? For instance, the NHO and LO want to increase the number of wind power plants on land by 400 percent. Is that possible without large sacrifices of nature? The NØF board wants input from its members on how the organisation can develop to play a more important role in society, in support of nature and the environment.

–Knut Rydgren