SDSU, School of Mines to work on NASA-funded study with EROS, GIScCE

Kara Gutormson

Kara Gutormson

Instead of harvesting fields of corn for ethanol, farmers may be harvesting switchgrass in years to come; but will a shift from corn to switchgrass affect regional weather patterns?

To answer that question, SDSU researchers are working on a three-year project with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The project-funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-will model potential effects of switchgrass production under different scenarios.

Geoffrey Henebry and Michael Wimberly are leading the project. Henebry and Wimberly are SDSU professors and scientists at the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence (GIScCE) on campus. Henebry is a member of NASA’s Land Use Land Cover Change Science Team and is a specialist in the field of ecological remote sensing. Wimberly is developing geospatial models for the project from the satellite imagery provided by EROS.

A project of this nature uses an “alternative futuring” approach. In alternative futuring, satellite images on the current landscape help predict the outcome of the landscape in a number of plausible scenarios.

“Satellite research makes it feasible to cover an entire region with data and allows us to see the world at a completely different level,” said Wimberly. “The process is not as humanized, which allows us to see the bigger picture, not just what could happen on a smaller scale.”

Data for the project will come from sites located in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. Not all of the data can be collected via satellites; some fieldwork will be necessary. Thomas Schumacher of the SDSU plant science department will be leading the fieldwork effort. “Sites have been identified, and we will undergo the fieldwork as soon as weather permits,” he said.

Schumacher, a specialist in soil biophysics, said switchgrass may be better than corn, because energy derived from it is more environmentally friendly. In comparison with corn-based ethanol, the switchgrass cellulosic ethanol has an even higher energy output ratio. “It’s a great alternative to corn, but as of yet, no one has come up with a commercially viable way to produce cellulosic ethanol,” said Schumacher.

The cultivation of switchgrass may affect the water exchange in the soil, which in turn could alter the weather. The project utilizes an “evapotranspiration” model developed by GIScCE senior scientist Gabriel Senay. The model measures evaporation from the plant and the movement of water from the roots through the leaves.

“The satellite images are our map,” Wimberly said. “Right now it is too soon in the project to make assumptions. We use the current models and field data and introduce new conditions to them. That is the basis for our projections.”

The risk of wildfire is another focus of the research. “Farm machinery could easily ignite a fire in the midst of the dried-out fields,” Wimberly said. “Grassland fires are more dangerous to people than forest fires. There’s no wood to burn, so the fire moves incredibly fast over the prairie. ? These hazards need to be identified now, so that we can start figuring out how to mitigate them.”

In addition to the GIScCE and the plant science department, the team of SDSU departments includes: biology/microbiology, agricultural and biosystems engineering and the geography department. The research team will need help collecting data, so students may be able to contribute to the project. Part-time positions will be available this spring and summer. For more information about the project, contact Henebry at [email protected].