Joseph Sexton

Joseph Sexton

Chief Scientist and Co-Founder


When Joe Sexton was a Master’s student at Utah State University in 1999, he was a bit of a unicorn.

“GIS and remote sensing were still this rare thing back then,” he said. “Most ecologists didn't even know what I was doing in the lab. But the USU RS/GIS lab has always been a hotspot for that kind of research.”

The Western United States, in the larger sense, requires remote sensing, he said. Coming from a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Florida, his background was in forests intensively managed for timber and wildlife–but to manage land at the scales of the West required a bigger perspective, so Sexton came to USU to dive deep into ecology, remote sensing, GIS, and statistics.

After a decade of developing the core algorithms, Sexton joined a team at NASA and the University of Maryland to produce something literally unique: high-resolution, time-serial maps of tree and water cover over the entire planet. It was a new product, and they knew they were on to something. It wasn’t that we weren’t putting the data out there, said Sexton, we made our data products open access through NASA, USGS, and our own lab website. It just wasn’t accessible, interpretable or easy to use for any but the most technical users. GIS was, after all, at the cutting edge of geospatial analysis, and Sexton was right at that edge, and pushing it forward. The three co-founders established a private company later that year to expose the world to science-grade data—terraPulse.

The first to come knocking was National Geographic, seeking data to help them advocate for the creation of a national park to protect the headwaters of the Okavango River in Africa. Now, the customer base for terraPulse runs the gamut of land uses, from forest, agricultural, range and wildland management.

TerraPulse provides maps in 4D, said Sexton. They monitor the current status, history, and future potential of large landscapes through satellite-based measurements of forest, crop, range, and wildland productivity; and they provide their information through user-friendly interfaces tailored to specific market and industry applications.

Sexton didn’t aim on a career in the private sector, simply going wherever his vision could be realized. Now he sees the partnership of research and business as a useful model for funding science, as well as the dispersal of research and information into working hands. He appreciates the culture his company offers for creativity, strategic agility, and expertise, as well as the space it creates for cooperation between enterprises that would otherwise be competing for research dollars.

Carbon markets are creating an upswell of demand for terraPulse’s work. Seeded by the World Bank and the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, the countries of Belize, Costa Rica, Laos, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic are each using terraPulse to map their national forest cover and activity in order to register their forests in the emerging global carbon market . The company applies machine learning to satellite imagery to extract long-term datasets that support the countries' efforts to reduce deforestation emissions and foster sustainable management of forests.

A recent NASA/Smithsonian study also linked terraPulse analysis to armed conflict and geopolitics in Myanmar, using the country’s conflict-affected borderlands as a case study. The research found that the rate and geography of deforestation were most influenced by the territorial jurisdictions of armed authorities, national political economic reforms and timber regulations, and proximity to national borders and their respective geopolitical relations, rather than simply the absence or presence of ceasefires.

Sexton often teams with Wildland Research Assistant Professor David Stoner. They are currently working on a project connecting the movements of large mammals in the western U.S. with big-picture information about an environment stressed by drought. The goal of the project is to map responses of migratory animals to landscape-level water stresses as the region continues to grapple with an ongoing 20-year drought.

“A key to success is presenting the complexities of the science in an intuitive format,” Sexton said.

“We realized that in a world increasingly impacted by human decisions, sustainability requires a tighter coupling between information and action. People need information about the biosphere. Our company provides that information, and it empowers people to make better decisions.”