Calgary’s Stampede Elm may have to make way for a new NHL arena, but it’s digitally preserved

The days may be numbered for a massive elm tree that sits on the site of the proposed new home for the Calgary Flames, but the tree has now been preserved digitally to make sure it never gets lost.

The Stampede elm, as it is known, towers above a parking lot just north of existing Saddledome.

But the city and the company that owns the Flames came to a deal last year to demolish the Saddledome and build a new arena just to its north, right where the Stampede elm has stood for more than a century.

That $550-million deal, which city council agreed to in the summer of 2019, one week after the details were made public, is now on pause due to potential cost overruns.

With the fate of the Stampede elm hanging in the balance, a digital heritage research group from the University of Calgary has tried to preserve the tree in a different form — a three-dimensional digital archive.

A three-dimensional digital model of the Stampede Elm, produced by a digital heritage group at the University of Calgary. (University of Calgary)

They’ve used a 3D imager to scan the massive tree. Each scan takes between five and 10 minutes to complete, and it’s done from a dozen different locations.

Then all the images are stitched together to create a digital model for an online archive that can be viewed anywhere in the world.

Madisen Hvidberg, a PhD student who’s part of the digital heritage research group, says it’s a way to keep the tree alive in some form.

Madisen Hvidberg says the tree will be added to an online archive that can be viewed from anywhere in the world. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

“Our digital scans can help the tree survive virtually, if the physical tree actually dies or is destroyed or has to be relocated,” Hvidberg said.

Peter Dawson, another member of the heritage group, says it’s a worthwhile project, but the virtual tree is of course not the same as the real thing.

Peter Dawson with the U of C’s department of anthropology and archaeology works the 3D imager near the Stampede elm, which sits in the middle of a Saddledome parking lot. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

“Being able to touch something, in many ways, conveys its meaning much more effectively than kind of looking at a virtual model or an animation,” he said.

Still the effort that went into the project shows just how much this tree is valued, said Julie Guimond, an urban forestry lead with the City of Calgary.

The exact age of the tree is unclear but, according to the U of C archive project, it’s been standing in that location for roughly 125 years and predates the earliest Calgary Stampede.

The 3D technology can accurately measure the length of each branch down to the submillimetre. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

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