“You may be wondering why a person who has studied the Mongolian Plateau for 13 years is in South Dakota,” John said. “If you look at pictures of West River South Dakota and pictures of Mongolia, you would think you were looking at the same place.”

The two regions are antipodal, or on the opposite side of the earth, John explained, and their grassland ecosystems are similar in nature and composition. Similarly, the corn-soybean rotation agroecosystems and watersheds of East River are very familiar to John, who has also spent several years studying similar landscapes in Michigan and Ohio.

His research provides significant information on how certain resources on which humans depend react to changes to land use and land cover as well as extreme climate events. “My research is on the inter-connectivity of food, energy and water through the health of grassland ecosystems,” John said.

In his work, field observations combine with climate data and remote imaging satellite data to document grassland structure and variables such as the percentage of canopy cover, plant height, aboveground biomass and species richness. His past work on the Mongolian Plateau has included support from a large grant from the National Science Foundation. John’s current project expands work in Mongolia into Kazakhstan and is funded through a grant from NASA’s Land Cover/Land Use Change Program. Another current research project of John’s is a geospatial analysis of biofuel crops.

“I observe, monitor and analyze long-term trends and write up the results and send them for peer review,” he says. “These model trends are very robust because we have so many years of satellite data in the public domain with high scientific integrity.”

Another South Dakota connection makes John’s move to the Rushmore State advantageous: the ability to collaborate with world-class scientists who work with some of the satellite data that John uses to study land cover and land use trends, which is available just an hour north of Vermillion at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (USGS EROS) near Sioux Falls. “The Landsat/MODIS archive—a 40-year record of global land surface—is right here at USGS EROS,” he said. “And that is one of the primary data sources I use.”

John earned his master’s degree in geography at Michigan State University and his Ph.D. in biology (ecology) at the University of Toledo. 

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