Maps and Mappers of the 2023 Calendar: Adam Steer

Tell us about yourself

I was tinkering with topography datasets in the Barents Sea and around the Svalbard archipelago, having just executed a mid-pandemic emigration to Norway for a contract working in the northern Barents Sea. I was really working on ways to make terrain visualisation happy for extremely hilly parts of the ocean (for example Gakkel Ridge) and also extremely flat regions (the Barents Sea) – working with methods I wrote about here:, and taking a lot of hints from in particular John Nelson’s work on terrain shading.

There’s an update in the works about dealing with vastly contrasting terrain – or how I got to be happy with how both the stupidly deep and exaggeratedly-hilly Arctic basin and the … flat and shallow .. Barents sea were rendered on the same map.

Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard archipelago, is right there in my region of interest. And because of how the maps were rotated I looked at it one day and thought huh.. Isfjorden (the ice fjord) and Van Miljens Fjorden look like giant tree trunks, with the branch fjords like branches, and the mountains of Spitsbergen like the foliage of a windswept forest. So my child of the 80s and 90s mind went to the whole concept of Yggdrasil, the world tree, from Norse mythology. Maybe, y’know, this giant travel-between-realms tree manifests itself in this treeles polar archipelago. I mean that would be deity-level irony right? And there are polar bears everywhere, which actually hunt and eat humans if they can, so it’s kind of well protected in an age-of-swords-and-bows way. So that’s where the map title comes from – Svalbardtraer is norwegian for Svalbard trees. I also designed some nest icons, thinking I would place one at each settlement site on the island in the ‘branches’ of the tree. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, so I rolled with an interesting visualisation of this unique island’s topography.

I chose a classical-looking font as another callback to mythological times. While nothing is labelled in the map, I learned a lot about Spitsbergen while deciding whether to label stuff or not. And then got to visit there a few times – and in a nice twist I didn’t feel embarrassed about my ironic visualisation after actually being there. My expectation kind of held up to reality! And making the inset maps was new for me – so it was also a great way to extend my QGIS skills.

Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

The data are a 30m GEBCO global topgraphy and bathymetry dataset – I’m pretty sure it’s IBCAOv4 – version 4 of a specialised bathy/topo dataset for the Arctic, expressed in north polar stereographic:

The components – including overview maps, were composed in QGIS. It uses a few layers of composited elevation attributes including a hillshade, hillshade of slope and the actual topography. Final assembly of the map was done in Inkscape – although the whole layout could also be reproduced in QGIS print composer really. I chose Inkscape because I’m faster at it. This description is a little hazy, because the project itself is on a hard drive that has just arrived in storage 6 hours drive away after 5 months in shipping transit from Australia. Things are scattered everywhere!