Two researchers kneeling on the ice reviewing data.

Natural Resources, Water, and Energy

Stewardship for the Post-Industrial World

At most higher education institutions, the academic model is organized into disciplines. Each discipline provides its own perspectives, and each perspective has its own strengths and limitations. When these different perspectives are woven together, our understanding of big challenges—like climate change or digital privacy or manufacturing disruption—is much more complete.

One of the most effective ways to bring vastly different disciplines together is to assemble a team to solve a pressing problem. The challenge provides the motivation for each expert to learn the languages of the other fields, to work to truly understand the approach and to collaborate on solution strategies. In the same vein, complex, local-to-global problems of managing natural resources, including energy and water, are best solved through the interaction of diverse and broad disciplines.

Consider the case of atmosphere-surface exchangeable pollutants (ASEPs). Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyl (more commonly known as PCBs), and persistent organic pollutants (like DDT) all qualify as ASEPs. ASEP molecules are invisible, tasteless world-hoppers that can travel great distances to eventually migrate to Lake Superior, where they move through the air, land, small lakes, big water, sediments, insect nymphs, crawdads, birds, fish, and humans.

For the Indigenous community on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the complexity of ASEP movement and impacts comes down to one question: When can we eat the fish?

“If we take the time to listen and watch and understand the life around us, these are the threads of connection that bind us with others through history and offer some peace and calm in a world so often full of discord.”

David Flaspohler portrait.
David J. Flaspohler
Professor, School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science

The problem in the Keweenaw is two-fold: With a global background that continuously supplies local fluxes of the mobile contaminants, efforts to mitigate ASEPs are minimally effective on a regional scale; at the same time, the peninsula’s ecosystems and people remain some of the most sensitive and vulnerable in the world.

A transdisciplinary team led by Michigan Tech tracks the pollutants while looking for solutions to reduce exposure for a local Indigenous community. The team includes University researchers in environmental engineering and social sciences, in partnership with state agencies and tribal governments. Their work deepens the understanding of ASEP cycling and the accuracy of modeling, evaluates multi-scale policy, and offers insight into the best practices for engaging local Indigenous communities in global research.

Nearby, another transdisciplinary team investigates the feasibility of converting abandoned mines into valuable energy storage. Michigan Tech researchers and students in engineering, industrial archaeology, and energy policy have partnered with local communities to transform what many see as liabilities into pumped hydro energy storage facilities. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is home to countless abandoned mines and some of the nation’s highest electricity rates, the project could profoundly impact the livelihood of many rural communities.

At Michigan Tech, our innovative teams work across boundaries, scales, and disciplines to investigate and solve multifaceted landscape issues in natural resources, water, and energy.

People ice fishing on Keweenaw Bay.

View From Above

Everyone’s heard of drones. Some of the press has been sinister. But these unmanned flying machines, operating autonomously and by remote control, can go where people cannot or prefer not to venture, carrying sensors that transmit information about the conditions and critical needs of the natural systems humans live in and rely on. Drones are one kind of remote sensing technology that gathers data from afar.

Geoscientists measure the breathing rates of volcanoes using satellites to find patterns to help better predict eruptions. Ecologists launch cameras on underwater robots to document fishery health. Environmental engineers visit recent landslides armed with decades of LiDAR (light imaging, detecting, and ranging) data and thermal imaging to understand why a slope gave way.

Colin Brooks, a senior research scientist at the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI), leads many projects using drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to help federal and state agencies map natural resources and develop safer, more effective, lower-cost ways to monitor transportation infrastructure.

Drone flying above the water.
Remote sensing captures images from afar to delve deep into tiny details. Most often, people think of satellite images, but the field spans many kinds of technology. MTRI researchers have access to some of the world’s top-notch image-gathering devices and, more importantly, the expertise to interpret the data.

In bridge inspections, for example, documenting defects is not as simple as flying a drone and taking a few photos. Several of the drones Brooks uses, including a hexacopter and quadcopter, fly in 20-minute runs within line of sight below 120 meters (400 feet) and are outfitted with photogrammetry and thermal imagery gear that picks up nuances beyond what the human eye sees. That means they can fly 100 meters above a 15-hectare region (330 feet above 40 acres) with a resolution of 5 cm (2 inches). Even better resolutions are available when flying at lower heights. In other words, the drone can sit on top of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge and pick out a caterpillar crawling on the sidewalk handrail—or a crack in the bridge deck—and still see the little critter if the UAV rose another 100 feet above the bridge.

Brooks has used similar drone operations to map and monitor invasions of Eurasian Watermilfoil and Phragmites in the Great Lakes, picking out clumps of the aquatic invaders hiding under the water’s surface. Next summer, a MTRI team will work with archaeologists from the Department of Social Science to use LiDAR sensors on drones to map historic Ojibwe settlements in the forests around Sault Saint Marie.

Collaborating with local communities, especially tribes, is an important part of natural resources research at Michigan Tech. Val Gagnon is the newly appointed director of University-Indigenous community partnerships in the Great Lakes Research Center. She helps connect researchers and tribal communities.

“New sensors, new platforms seem to come online several times a year—so how do we take advantage of that rapid innovation and hardware and make them available on a practical basis? Somebody has to do the testing to make sure the tech collects what’s needed and that’s part of the niche we fill.”

Colin Brooks portrait.
Colin Brooks
Research Scientist, Michigan Tech Research Institute

Through interdisciplinary collaboration, Gagnon, academic researchers, tribal scientists, and communities can work together on the intertwined and knotted challenges in policy, data-gathering, data-analyzing, mapping, and communication.

What do Gagnon’s and Brooks’ teams come back to? The tools that help them look at complex problems from afar. Drones, sensors, satellites—and the models that analyze them—help researchers navigate questions about natural resources, water, and energy.