ORNL SULI intern uses drones to study forest drought in Minnesota Meet Keenan Ganz

ORNL SULI intern uses drones to study forest drought in Minnesota

Keenan Ganz

Climate change has been on Keenan Ganz’s mind since he was a child. He knew that he wanted to make a difference, and through STEM saw an opportunity to do good.

After high school, Ganz dedicated himself to programming and data science with the dream of improving how we adapt to climate change. He earned his bachelor’s degree in environmental science and computational biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Ganz was excited to learn about the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program hosted by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), and how he could make a difference by applying. Ganz reached out to scientists in the Environmental Sciences Division (ESD) at ORNL to express interest in their climate change research. He was subsequently selected by an ESD mentor and appointed as a SULI intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The SULI program allows students and recent graduates to perform research under the guidance of laboratory staff scientists on projects supporting the U.S. Department of Energy mission.

His topic of research was for the Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments (SPRUCE) project, a large-scale experiment in the peatlands of Minnesota led by ORNL for the Department of Energy. Ganz and his colleagues examined how evergreen forests in Minnesota respond to drought.

Trees and plants move water through their bodies in a continuous cycle, and during the day this water travels upward from the soil into their canopies. This allows the water to evaporate and cool the plant. Measuring this process, the impact of drought and the resulting change on the forest scale is a challenge. The traditional methods of attaching sensors to trees, or destructively clipping tree branches and leaves to measure drought stress, would quickly become a labor-intensive task for an entire ecosystem. As such, SPRUCE researchers were exploring use of large-scale thermal imaging of the tree canopy using drone-mounted cameras, a research topic of great interest to Ganz and one that would leverage his skills in both remote sensing and computer programming.

“Researchers in the crop sciences have used (thermal imaging) to automate irrigation for roughly 40 years, so we think the same phenomenon should apply to evergreen trees, too,” Ganz said.

Though thermal imaging was simpler than use of individual sensors, it still presented a set of unique challenges. The finely tuned instruments yielded a large amount of data, and the software tools were limited. On top of this, he described getting up at 4 in the morning to take baseline samples of tree water status.

“We have to carefully calibrate our camera to measure the canopy temperature while accounting for other sources of infrared light that reach the sensor. We also have to account for properties of the air when relating canopy temperature to drought stress. Add in differences across tree species and variation throughout the day, and this data gets complex very quickly,” he said.

Drought monitors could be used by forest managers looking to predict wildfires. Ganz also hopes that releasing more drought information to the public will help increase awareness of climate change and encourage more people to care about forests. Ganz’s research at SPRUCE will be included in a presentation at the influential American Geophysical Union meeting later this year.

As a SULI intern, Ganz learned a lot about trees’ stress reaction, as well as the physics behind it, the mechanics of thermal imaging cameras and how to conduct field research safely. His research on canopy temperature with ORNL helped him receive another fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Ganz’s experience as a SULI intern at ORNL was a one-of-a-kind experience, and his favorite part of the internship was traveling to Minnesota and conducting research in the field. In the future, he will be continuing his education at the University of Washington, where he will apply his new skills from the field to aid his advocacy for climate change education.

The SULI program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.