The Tree Counter – St. Olaf College


Ann Raiho ’11, the second member of the Hudson Bay canoe team, has been just as busy since her epic voyage as her boatmate Natalie Warren ’11. After graduating from St. Olaf with a major in math and an emphasis in environmental science, she completed a Masters in Ecology from Colorado State University, a Ph.D. in ecology from Notre Dame and postdoctoral fellow at Colorado State.

Where are you working now?

I am employed by NASA as a contractor through the University of Maryland and work remotely from Colorado. I’m part of the team on a satellite called Surface Biology and Geology, which is still in the planning stages. The Earth Observatory Group is our informal name.

How would you briefly describe your doctoral thesis?

My research focused on fusing complex ecosystem models with paleoecological data to inform unobservable long-term – decades to millennia – processes in forests. I’ve worked with paleoecological data, which is fossilized pollen from the bottom of lakes and tree ring records. I used this data along with mathematical models to better understand how forests change over long periods of time.

Could you give us a specific example?

We used fossil pollen collected from over 200 lakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to recreate forest features such as biomass from the past 10,000 years. During this time, many species have shifted their geographic distribution. The exact timing and extent of these shifts gives us a better idea of ​​how trees might respond to climate change in the future.

What should your satellite project achieve?

The satellite gives us so much more information: it takes a picture of every place on earth every 16 days and gives us so much repetitive information. There could be many more large trees that we don’t know about and that take up a lot of carbon. None of the current models agree on how much carbon is taken up by trees; this satellite data should help us understand this better.

How is your work related to climate change?

Trees live a long time. Different species migrate over millennia when the climate changes. With the earth’s climate changing rapidly now, we are trying to plan for the future and determine where plants will – and not – flourish. Long-term data showing how plants have moved in the past will help us figure this out for the future. The satellite’s spectrometer takes pictures of things we can’t see like nitrogen levels, cellulose, etc. We hope to map plant properties from space and see how they change over time.

Has your time in the Boundary Waters influenced your interest in ecology?

Absolutely. When I was younger I read a lot about how the Boundary Waters transformed from a boreal forest to an open savannah due to climate change. And of course that happens both on a global and a local level.

Did a certain part of your St. Olaf studies influence your later career?

Studying biology abroad in India prepared me well for a lifetime of independent research. I often think of this program as a real turning point. Eight of us were sent in pairs to two different field stations in the Tamil Nadu area of ​​southern India. We spent four to six weeks on an independent study project at each location. In one study, I looked at the diet and food insecurity of women, and in my second study, where different butterflies lived. I was only 19 and most of the time I was just trying to figure it out for myself. Those independent research skills that I have used so often really evolved back then.

What advice can you give to young Oles who share your passion for the environment and your climate change concerns?

Climate change is a global and complex problem, the solution of which requires many types of people with the most varied of interests and skills. For me, my strengths and interests are always in the field of math and wilderness. Focusing on these interests led me to a career in the ecology of global change. In college, the diverse experiences, but also the clinging to something (mathematics) that I thought was important and unique, helped me to realize this path. At that time I did not see the connection between my interests, but felt that I can flexibly shape my path. I always took opportunities that came up that matched my background in math and ecology while adding something that I didn’t know much about but was interested in.

In the short term, I recommend students not to say no to an opportunity that sounds interesting to them, to actively seek further opportunities, and often to step back to see the bigger picture of what they are doing or what path they have to follow contributes to the worldwide efforts to solve the climate crisis.


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