Forest research for the trees

Profiles of Norwegian Science

Photo: Ilan Kelman
The wooden buildings of Bryggen, the historic German Wharf in Bergen, Norway.

Agder, Norway

Which country is over one-quarter forested yet derives only about 0.05% of its gross domestic product from forest-related revenues? Since you are reading The Norwegian American, it does not take much to work out that the answer is Norway.

A lot of diverse science this year has covered forestry in Norway. Two just-published papers examine wood products that contribute to Norway’s economy and landscapes.

Some forests are managed for timber, so that enough high-quality wood is available for the building industry. If managed properly, this resource can be renewable and sustainable, while at the same time, supporting local expertise and jobs.

The timber can be used for furniture and interior finishing pieces such as banisters, in addition to the structures of buildings. Logging requires careful management to avoid devastating the ecology and to ensure high-quality products.

A study published in April from the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research examined how to identify forests in Norway that require selective tree cutting before commercial logging. This thinning removes less valuable trees, especially those that might be diseased or damaged, to promote the growth of trees that generate the most profit.

Photo: Moelven
The 18-story Mjøstårnet in Brumunddal north of Oslo is billed as the world’s tallest wooden building.

The scientists compared free satellite data with their own ground surveys, examining how well each technique identified forest areas requiring some thinning. Using appropriate algorithms, they found that the satellite data worked well and could be used for more efficient classification and other management actions.

Once the trees are felled, then what? Two University of Cambridge researchers in the United Kingdom investigated how wood is used in tall buildings across eight countries, one of which is Norway. Through interviews and document analyses covering 37 projects with tall wood buildings, they published their results in April, addressing policies, regulations, and incentives.

For Norway, they highlighted a combination of approaches, particularly noting the care needed for fire safety. These policies include national code provisions to support wooden building performance, innovation and research programs, a local building permit exemption in Bergen for using wood in a specific building, and funding for environmentally friendly design and construction.

One example is the 18-story Mjøstårnet, in Brumunddal north of Oslo, billed as the world’s tallest wooden building. Opened in March 2019, it is said to use far less energy than other building materials, including minimal transportation costs since most of the over 10,000 trees used in its construction came from nearby forests.

Norway’s wood building heritage has long had prominence, with an internationally renowned example being the World Heritage Site of Bergen’s wharf, called Bryggen. Starting as a European trade center in the 12th century, this dock area retained its importance for centuries, being reconstructed several times after fires and still being preserved today.

Urnes Stave Church in Luster in Sogn og Fjordane.

Sogn og Fjordane boasts another wood-based World Heritage Site, the Urnes wooden church or Urnes Stave Church, stavkirke, overlooking Lustrafjorden. Construction probably started around 1130, and it is the oldest remaining wooden church in Norway.

One question hanging over all this work is why the selected papers seek products from trees, requiring them to be cut down, whereas Norway’s forests provide many services. Hiking, skiing, and tourism as forest-related recreation services bring in jobs and income. A high quality of life throughout the country is partly attributed to always having green space nearby.

Forests, too, sometimes reduce the risk of property damage from floods, winds, and landslides while often being the most effective way of storing greenhouse gases. The value of these services can be hard to calculate, showing the dangers of considering only quantitative economic analyses. The flipside is the possibility of fires, although many techniques exist to manage conflagrations and to avoid harm from them.

Fundamentally, we can and should move beyond GDP and indicators of direct jobs to learn more about the other forms of wealth brought by Norway’s trees. This would truly be seeing the full forest in all its glory.


The scientific papers mentioned in this article, in order, are at:

This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.