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A fieldwork in the digital & pandemics era

Date:11 June 2020
Author:Campus Fryslân
Federal Geoportal of the Swiss Confederation
Federal Geoportal of the Swiss Confederation

As a nature lover, I was really looking forward to experiencing fieldwork practice this year. Nonetheless, one of the many consequences of the current sanitary crisis was the cancellation of the fieldwork practice for the ecosystem processes and services course, and having instead a digital fieldwork assignment.

By F. Aldair Valencia Vazquez

As weird as it can sound and as much as I dislike that so many aspects of our daily lives are now related to the corona crisis, it’s interesting to experience how we are learning and getting ahead with the digital environment. Thus, I would like to talk about my personal experience and my thoughts about this exercise.

The assignment regarded some questions about ecosystems in Switzerland, specifically from two lakes and their surrounding areas. The platform used was the Federal Geoportal of the Swiss Confederation (, which is a very interactive tool that concentrates the geographical information and data of the country.

This exercise enabled us to understand Earth Systems processes and interactions, as well as the relation and impacts of human activities on them. For instance, the exercise focused on agricultural activities and different scenarios of the consequences of climate events and the impacts of fertilizers in lake ecosystems. 

These problems and scenarios can be expressed as systems. Systems include limits, components or elements, inputs, and outputs. As an example, lakes are physically limited by topography; they are composed of elements such as fish, microbes, soil, and nutrients; they have inputs of water and energy from the sun; and finally outputs of water that can be rivers or evaporation. As with lakes, we can also think about many other environments as systems (tropical forests in Borneo and South America, deserts in Africa, or ocean ecosystems around the world). However, we have to be careful to not miss a vital element: humans. One of the interesting parts of this exercise was to include human activity as an interaction that can severely impact ecosystems. 

But we have to be careful about how we understand, first, Earth as an interconnected system, and then, human impacts. Furthermore, we have to be careful about how we are representing not only one shared reality but many realities and contexts, specifically social and economic. Are the same impacts from a supported and regulated agriculture system in Switzerland than one without incentives and local support, for instance in Mexico? What’s the historical background behind these differences? Are the solutions the same? 

Even though the thoughts and discussion can be widely extended, there are some points I would like to highlight:

  1. Humans are an essential part of nature and we all depend on it, from our food and the air we breathe, to the cultural and recreational benefits.
  2. Human interactions with nature and ecosystems are very different across the world and we must understand how the social, cultural, and economic contexts are also different. 
  3. As an interconnected system, global challenges (such as inequalities and health) are all related, and the current crisis represents an opportunity to tackle these challenges in an integral way.
  4. Science and data are essential to understand these relations between humans and nature, but also to tackle the problems and find solutions (which not necessarily need to be “technologically advanced”).

On a final note, I would like to say that some of us are very fortunate to have the opportunity to get ahead from this crisis and still have so many insights. Even though it’s very different from a face-to-face environment, we have to take advantage of the situation and the privilege that means having a computer and Internet connection. Besides, I also think that we must be aware that the digital approaches like the one we examined for this assignment are only a way to represent reality, but our interactions and realities are more complex. As humans, we have a very close relationship with nature, and nowadays, individual and economic interests represent a threat to it. And we must be prepared for these challenges.