NASA-funded study to explore biomass impacts on weather

By Susanne Retka Schill
Changes in cropping patterns and the introduction of more perennial biomass crops such as switchgrass may have an impact on the weather and climate predictions. Scientists at South Dakota State University's Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence have received a $738,000 grant from NASA for a three-year study to focus on land use in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, western Minnesota and northern Iowa. SDSU's GIS center will be working with the U.S. Geological Survey's Earth Resources Observation Systems Data Center, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

The project will generate scenarios of possible landscape changes, and the impact on weather and climate, explained Geoffrey Henebry, an SDSU professor and senior scientist at the GIS center. "The change in cropping patterns will be driven by the location of ethanol plants," he said, with each ethanol plant drawing feedstock from a given area. As cellulosic ethanol technology develops, there's potential for corn-based ethanol plants to retrofit to cellulosic processes, resulting in a feedstock change from corn to switchgrass. The change in crops will have consequences in the amount of energy and water that is released into the atmosphere, primarily because perennial crops green earlier and remain greener later in the fall. The project will project how that may affect precipitation patterns and the potential for severe weather. The research will also study the impact of landscape changes that occur in patches throughout a region, rather than the entire landscape being converted to switchgrass as some studies have hypothesized, Henebry said.

The researchers will also project the impact of potential fire scenarios. "There is a potential for fire that hasn't been there since the European settlement," Henebry said. Switchgrass research indicates a sustainable harvest will occur in the fall after the first hard freeze. Plus, there is an emphasis on high yields. "It will be dry and extremely flammable," he said.