Exploring 3D Capture to Preserve the Changing Tantramar Marshes’ Tidal Wetland Landscape

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This is the first post in the Wetland Wednesday series, edited by Gabrielle McLaren.

The Tantramar Marshes are a collective blend of coastal saltmarshes, freshwater wetlands, and agricultural dykelands that make up a region called the Chignecto Isthmus. Derived from Siknit meaning “great marsh district” or “drainage place” in Mi’kmaq, the Chignecto Isthmus makes up a narrow 21-kilometre strip of land separating the waters of the Bay of Fundy from those of the Northumberland Straight and is the sole terrestrial connection that joins mainland Nova Scotia to New Brunswick and the rest of the continent. Situated just above sea level, this flat, low-lying, and fragile strip of land has recently come into attention as rising sea levels and severe storm weather events threaten to flood the isthmus by the year 2100.  Currently, a historical network of dykes along the Bay of Fundy which are protecting coastal communities, transportation infrastructure, natural resources, and historical features are also becoming more vulnerable to rising tides.

But beyond their practical function, the significance of these marshes to nearby communities is not always understood. Travelling along the Trans-Canada Highway that cuts between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the narrow strip of seemingly barren flatlands doesn’t exactly scream “scenic lookout,” with its ecological and historical significance not immediately obvious. The Tantramar Marshes, like many other wetlands across Canada, have often been perceived as empty “wastelands,” justifying their colonization and reclamation for other “productive” uses. In the Tantramar Marshes, this has included the 300-year history of draining, ditching, and dyking, which transformed the marshes into agricultural land.

The Tantramar Marshes are intensely storied: rich in environmental histories and ecological and cultural significance. The nature and importance of salt marshes—as carbon sinks, natural buffers against sea-level rise, (in)tangible heritage, and sites of local community knowledge—are not always recognized or understood outside of specialist stakeholder groups. Many forms of natural and cultural heritage in the Tantramar Marshes are increasingly at risk of disappearing from ongoing environmental forces: rapid drainage, development, and now the effects of sea-level rise are pushing many of these layers below the surface. 

A central goal of my graduate project has been to unearth, document, and bring attention to the historical and material layers of the marsh, and to how emerging immersive technologies can be deployed towards this aim. One way I am exploring this is by using digital tools of 3D capture and augmented reality to help build collective memories and relationships to places and communities that otherwise may be lost to colonial processes and effects of climate change. 

3D Capture in Heritage Preservation

3D reality capture refers to several techniques that collect data from the real world to create digital 3D models of spaces and objects. Popular 3D capture methods include 3D scanning (with LiDAR laser scanners) which collects spatial coordinates of an environment and results in a detailed 3D point cloud model of the space. Another popular technique is photogrammetry, which uses photographs taken from many different positions and angles around a subject to algorithmically construct a 3D space or object. 

The use of 3D capture technologies for preserving forms of material and spatial heritage has increasingly become a popular method in digital heritage practices. High-fidelity imaging techniques such as 3D laser scanning and digital photogrammetry have quickly captured the attention of public and professional audiences in a wave of optimism as new forms of digital preservation and archaeological recording and interpretation. Heritage practitioners hope that by integrating 3D capture technologies with immersive virtual and augmented reality platforms, endangered heritage can be captured, re-materialized, and preserved from the forces that threaten it.

3D capture of one of the last remaining Marsh Barns that was used for hay production in the Tantramar Marshes. Image courtesy of Elina Lex.

Until now, 3D capture technologies have been firmly planted in the hands of experts and used primarily for preserving recognized forms of cultural heritage such as national built heritage and heritage sites. Now that 3D LiDAR scanners have become available in smartphones, these technologies have become more available to anyone who has a phone. New apps are also emerging: Polycam is a free smartphone app that allows anyone to use LIDAR and photogrammetry techniques to create 3D models of objects and sites, opening this technology for a wider range of users and communities. As 3D capture technologies become more widely available to different kinds of users, we are still discovering the diverse ways that these technologies can be used.

3D Archiving a Changing Landscape

Using 3D capture in the Polycam app, I am working to document and archive different material worlds, ecologies, and places along the coastal marshes of the Chignecto Isthmus as they are being threatened by ongoing changes and effects. My approach to 3D capture has been guided by re-appropriating the technology as a tool for counter-mapping1 heritage, where technologies could be used to help reconnect marginalized places and histories, foreground local community knowledge, and help to create new relationships of care between humans and wetland environments and their changing material/immaterial presences. This has led me to document different sites and subjects which focus on residual and ruderal forms of heritage that may fall outside of common heritage discourses, go unseen, or have already been displaced in the landscape due to forces of disturbance. 

Digital image of a 3D model of a ruined stone structure overgrown with marshy plants.
Ruins belonging to a never-completed historic ship railway designed to cross the Isthmus’ marshy landscape.
Glitched digital image of a 3D model of a Cattail plant.
Tidal wetlands are important environments for harvesting various plants and plant parts for medicines, foods, and materials. One of the most notable and prominent wetland plants is the Cattail, which is used by Mi’kmaq for various foods, medicines, and fiber materials. Image courtesy of Elina Lex.

Caitlin DeSilvey describes “ruderal heritage” as a new framework of heritage preservation practice in our current ecological epoch that understands change and transformation as an integral element of heritage practice, and in it, the potential to generate new connections between people, more-than-humans, past and future. As heritage preservation practices become intimately enmeshed with forces of ecological change, categories of cultural and natural heritage also become harder to separate. Through 3D capture in my work, different elements of the landscape’s ruderal heritage, such as different plants, species, and material remains are brought forward as (counter)narratives of a diverse, layered, and changing landscape. These 3D elements will eventually be displayed, and re-inserted back into the landscape in an augmented reality experience that can help the public engage with the diverse histories of these marshes.

The wider recognition of inevitable transformative change has led to new theoretical and methodological approaches, where “heritage” can be understood as a socially embedded, relational, and future-oriented process rather than a determined fixed past. It is from this that I position the digital, embodied, practice-led methods of 3D capture with open-ended attempts to engage with the landscape’s emergent and changing materialities, rather than fixed on preserving inherent or stable at-risk heritage/values. These digital activities focus less on creating exact digital copies through neutral, technical field engagements, but rather are creative and speculative explorations that participate in the embedded knowledge and changing material conditions of the landscapes. 

In open and uncertain landscapes like the Tantramar Marshes, those who are responsible for steering its preservation into the future must continuously accommodate and navigate ambiguity, instability, and emergent processes. In the preservation of the Tantramar Marshes, I am compelled by how immersive technologies like these might facilitate new ways of relating to the land, create new connections between past and future, and facilitate practices of care for natural-cultural environments and the subjects that exist within them. 

Digital image of a 3D model of marsh grass detritus in intertidal mud.
Cordgrasses play a crucial role in stabilizing and building marsh habitats, serving as important food and shelter habitats for a wide range of species. Historically, much of this habitat has disappeared through dyking to create agricultural land. Found along the marsh edges, in front of dykes and in intertidal zones, cordgrasses help to trap sediment and act as natural buffers against rising tides.

  1. Phil Cohen and Mike Duggan, eds., New Directions in Radical Cartography: Why the Map Is Never the Territory (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538147191/. ↩︎
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Elina Lex is an interdisciplinary researcher and media artist working across XR technologies, digital archives, environmental history, and immersive storytelling. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at Concordia University, where her current work intersects immersive media technologies and digital heritage, exploring how emergent media technologies might provide new ways to archive and preserve, provide access to, and mobilize more diverse and future-oriented processes of heritage making. Her current graduate work is an XR project exploring coastal histories, living archives, and heritage under transformation on the ever-changing salt marshes on the Bay of Fundy.

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