Tech Forward: Natural Resource Sustainability for a Technological World

Autumn leaves in a forest
Autumn leaves in a forest
Andrew Storer, dean of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, discusses integrating technology into land stewardship to address contemporary and future environmental challenges.

Michigan Technological University’s thought leaders share their ideas to prepare students and the University for a rapidly changing future. Andrew Storer, dean of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, explains how integrating technology into land stewardship will address contemporary and future environmental challenges.

As society navigates a rapidly changing world, Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science (SFRES) is uniquely positioned to prepare leaders who develop and communicate science and technology related to the understanding, stewardship and conservation of natural systems, of which humans are an integral part.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, we face environmental challenges that are bigger than ever before: climate change, invasive species, urbanization. But we also face unprecedented opportunity. With advancements in science and technology, we have the knowledge and ability to engage with the natural environment in a way that is sustainable and promotes a high quality of life.

When we look to the future and ponder our place in what some have called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our focus tends to rest on technological advancements like automation and artificial intelligence (AI). But an equally important aspect of the current industrial era, is the recognition of the importance of sustainable use of renewable natural resources and acknowledgment of the role of technology and AI in conservation of the natural world.

Bringing Ecosystems into Balance

The environmental challenges we face — including climate change — impact natural and human ecosystems both directly and indirectly. The impacts of climate change are becoming more noticeable as the geographic range of native species change, weather events become more severe, changes in complex interactions in ecosystems are characterized and rising sea levels impact coastal cities. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report clearly indicates the urgency for action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C, with a rapidly shrinking timeframe in which to achieve this. It is essential that forests are at the forefront of efforts to reduce the rate at which atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing and slow the rate of climate change that we experience.

Healthy natural systems can serve as important carbon sinks, with forests and wood products absorbing 16 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels in the U.S., and trees reducing residential energy usage in urban areas by 7.2 percent. Many proposed plans for lowering net emissions include goals for carbon capture. These targets cannot be reached without increasing capture of carbon in forests, and ensuring that forests are healthy and resilient so that their contribution of carbon back to the environment is minimized.

To ensure forests are healthy and resilient, we must focus on managing them sustainably for the products and services they provide, including carbon sequestration. While sustainability has become a buzz word recently, it is actually a concept that dates back to 18th century forestry practices in Germany and is at the core of what we do in forested and other ecosystems.

"Our programs emphasize the sustainability and resilience of natural systems, and explore the interface between natural and engineered systems."Andrew Storer

Because SFRES is positioned in a university with large engineering programs, we are able to participate in multidisciplinary projects that use the newest technologies and consider their impacts on the natural environment. As the future calls for sustainability, forests and other natural systems can increasingly become sources of renewable materials. SFRES also partners with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, housed at the USDA Forest Service lab in Houghton, to conduct wide-reaching and nationally recognized work that promotes climate change adaptation in forests as a carbon defense.

We anticipate future industrial revolutions where the sustainability and resilience of the natural environment are central to the exploits of humans. The work of SFRES relies on data-rich technologies like remote sensing and geographic information systems that collect big data to assess natural systems and detect changes in them. Genetic techniques allow unprecedented access to apply systems biology approaches, use bioinformatics and manipulate the genomes of organisms to solve on the ground issues relating to adaptation of species to changing environments. Automation and AI will change how we manage natural systems in the future. Our graduates will have the knowledge to feed into these new technologies for sound stewardship and conservation activities.

"Failure to address the problems of climate change and sustainability risks a world that, while super-connected and technologically advanced, is not a world that can sustain life in a meaningful way."Andrew Storer

A Love of the Outdoors

It is the most frequently stated reason for new students enrolling in programs in SFRES. And we put them outdoors. They work in field labs where they learn tools for assessing natural resources in the field and characterize the natural world in meaningful ways. And yes, they work in the snow — hardhats and snowshoes are essential!

Throughout their time at Michigan Tech, hands on, outdoor skills are emphasized and supported by computer lab and other lab time that integrates the natural world with the new technologies around us. All students in forestry, wildlife ecology and management, applied ecology and environmental science as well as natural resources management, participate in a semester-long integrated field practicum at the Ford Center and Forest where technical, human and professionalism skills are learned and practiced.

Michigan Tech is ideally situated in forested ecosystems and adjacent to some of the most important fresh water resources in the world. We are also located within Ojibwa (Chippewa) homelands and ceded-territory established by the Treaty of 1842. As such, we work to learn from Indigenous knowledge to enhance our understanding of socio-ecological systems and to address sustainability challenges into the future. 

No other academic institution can match the combination of assets that we have. Students are drawn to Michigan Tech because of our people and our programs. But what sets us apart from other institutions, is the draw of our remote location with the forests and water-rich environment of Upper Michigan, the history and identity as Ojibwa homelands and the diverse relationships connecting humans and the natural world. This provides a unique and elevated opportunity to challenge students with learning goals that incorporate social responsibility, sustainable development and environmental policy and the latest available technologies.

The author thanks SFRES colleagues Andy Burton, Victor Busov, Curtis Edson, Val Gagnon and Jerry Jondreau for their review of and input into portions of this article.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.