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Time-Lapse Photography Project on the Platte River

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NEWSC Director Bob Swanson, Wildlife photographer Mike Forsberg, and NET Television producer Mike Ferrell discuss their plans to mount 45 cameras along the entire Platte River to document its changes through the year and beyond.




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Rachael Hoagland: Welcome to Nebraskast where we talk with real USGS scientists about the important water-resources work they’re doing all over Nebraska. My name is Rachael Hoagland and I’m here with Bob Swanson, the director of the USGS Nebraska Water Science Center, Michael Forsberg, photographer, and Mike Ferrell with NET Television, Nebraska’s PBS station. And we’re here to talk a project that’s still in the works. It’s a time-lapse photography project that is expected to last at least a year, hopefully much longer than that. Michael, I’m going to start with you. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about this. I’m assuming this was your brain child. What can you tell me about how this idea got started and how you see this working.

Michael Forsberg: The way this got started was I’ve worked a lot in my career in the Great Plains of North America. It’s a very dynamic landscape and one of the frustrating as a photographer is to go to a place and somebody says, “You should have been here yesterday.” Or “You should have been here last season or last year.” One of the most important and amazing thing about the characteristics of the Great Plains is that it’s always moving, it’s always in flux and there’s not been a good way to tell that story in still photographs. There has been time-lapse imagery that been used to look at processes around the world including glaciers in the north and south regions of the earth and I thought it would be a good idea if maybe we could apply time-lapse photography to look at a watershed and to look at water and there’s no better story, I don’t think, in the Great Plains than to look at the Platte River basin and see where your water goes to and where it comes from as it pulses through the system. So that was something that had been kicked around in my mind for quite a while. I began working with Mike Ferrell on a documentary about a book I’d produced recently called Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild and Mike and I spent a lot of windshield time together over the last year and we started talking about this idea. I quickly realized that, Mike has a very deep interest in the Platte, which I’m sure he’ll talk about here, and we decided to collaborate on this project together so it’s our project and I think it’s going to be a very interesting thing as we move forward.

Rachael Hoagland: What are some of the details in terms of how you expect to collect all this information?

Michael Forsberg: Well, we’re going to deploy about 45 camera systems up and down the Platte at different points from the headwaters above timberline in Colorado to where the Platte River dumps into the Missouri (River). We basically want to show three different source areas we get our water from: We get our water from snow melt, we get our water from weather and climate and we get our water from the aquifer in the system. Each one of these cameras will be deployed at a specific site to help tell a different part of the story. Hopefully, collectively they’ll tell the big story of the Platte River. So the camera’s time-lapse photography technology is what we’re hanging our hat on here on this project as the thread that’ll be the storyline.

Rachael Hoagland: Bob Swanson, this isn’t just an art project; this is science, too. What interest would USGS have in the data that’s being collected?

Bob Swanson: Well, this Water Science Center is really all about time-series data but for us traditionally it’s been stage, discharge, water quality. But this adds a new aspect of it. We’ve taken pictures as we’ve collected the data in the past, but this is really an opportunity to tell us, or show us, a day in the life of the Platte River, actually 365 days in the life of the Platte River and for students and researchers out there to really start to absorb just what’s going on in the whole system. When we’re dealing with drink-water problems down at the lower end of the Platte, the snowmelt is just beginning at the upper end. To see how all of this works together is, again, and how dynamic the river is, is a new opportunity. I’ve been out on the river and seen it when it was bone dry, I’ve seen it when it was bridgedeck high, I’ve seen the ice go out on it. But not many people have had that opportunity. And I think this’ll at least be a great start toward everybody being able to experience the Platte in ways that most of us have been able to.

Rachael Hoaglandl: Mike Farrell, you’re here to try to tell this story visually. What kinds of stories are you hoping to tell?

Mike Farrell: Well, let me try to twist that question around a little bit. What we’re trying to do is take this array of cameras and create not only single individual images of specific photo points that have some bearing on the overall story but also to take all these to have them work together to tell a bigger story in a cinematic way. So if you think about how films are made, there’s wide shots, sometimes there’s closeups, there’s medium shots, and so we’re going to use these cameras in a similar way to do that. We hope when we have the funding to build a sophisticated web site, you’ll be able to pull up imagery from various places along the Platte River system and put them side by side and see what’s happening either at the same time or see how water comes from the high country and moves to the dams and reservoirs down onto sugar beet fields and then eventually down into the lower Platte itself in a cinematic fashion. So each picture needs to have something unique and relevant to telling that whole story and then taken as a whole, we hope they add up to more than one individual picture by itself.

Rachael Hoagland:  Michael, where are you in the process of getting this project going?

Michael Forsberg: We’re at the beginning still. We’re at the beginning stages. We put our first time-lapse camera out on the central Platte at Audobon’s Rowe Sanctuary here last week. We’re going to be installing three more systems this week hopefully on the central and lower Platte and that means we have only about 40 to go (laughs). If everything works well, we hope to have all these installed before the snow really starts to melt up in the high country. This is a very front-end-loaded project from a fieldwork standpoint so we have a lot of things that we have to work out yet. Each situation is different, but we are moving forward. We are comfortable and confident with the technology that we have. We’re real comfortable and confident in the team that we have put together. It’s just a matter now of getting boot out on the ground and just keeping at it everyday.

Rachael Hoagland: So you have a total of roughly 45 cameras. What are some of the logistics involved in installing those cameras in the various locations you’re going to be choosing?

Michael Forsberg: Every situation we’re finding is different because sometimes we’re going to be mounting on a pole in the ground, sometimes we’ll be mounting into a bridge, or we’ll be putting something on a tower, or some other manmade structure. Every one of those is its own animal. That’s probably the biggest logistical challenge. Another challenge associated with that is we’re on a lot of different people’s lands, private lands and public lands, and different agency lands and so forth. All of that requires the proper permissions, and going through that whole process, then it’s just dealing with the weather. When we put in the first system out on the Platte, it was 20 degrees and the wind was blowing at 30 miles per hour out of the north and there’s snow. It felt like 30 below and it wasn’t very enjoyable out there but we’re all sort of tough and war-torn people anyway so. It’s not a big deal but we’re hoping for sunny days (laughs).

Rachael Hoagland: I think a guy like you who can sit in a duck blind or an outdoor windy structure for how many hours at a time waiting for the right shot? You’re probably good to go.

Michael Forsberg: Right, well, when you get about four guys together none of you individually wants to admit to the other one that you’re cold or tired or frustrated (laughs). It’s working out good though.

Rachael Hoagland: And this is I’m assuming a collaborative effort. Are you working with other agencies to make this happen?

Michael Forsberg: We’re working with a number of different agencies because like I just said we have to put these cameras out on different locations each of which are somebody else’s jurisdiction or ownership so we have talked with federal, state, and local groups, the Platte River Recovery Program is a sponsor of this project, the Cooper Foundation has provided support for this project, USGS is lending logistical and technical support to this project, Nikkon has generously donated a certain number of cameras to this project and then given us really good prices on the rest of them so Nikkon has been a very important part of this project, and the University of Nebraska is a huge partner in this project.

Rachael Hoagland: Bob, what about the ability of the data that’ll be collected in helping to answer some of the bigger questions that scientists are trying to answer such as climate change, such as landscape change over time?

Bob Swanson: We felt like we’ve missed a number of opportunities in the past. Prior to phragmites becoming an issue on the Platte River we wish that we could’ve shown people and recorded the conditions that existed prior to that now that those conditions have existed for a number of years, folks quickly forget what it used to be like. This is going to give us an opportunity to make some geomorphic or properties, characteristics of rivers, we can make some benchmark measurements that we can watch over time now. And that’s going to be very valuable to us as far as even planning building bridges in the future. We’ll know a little more about channel carrying capacity, how much will the river channel hold during a flood. It’s also going to give an idea for climate change, about when days might be changing, about how quickly snow begins to melt up in the headwaters regions, how fast does that melting occur. If that changes over time then that gives us an idea of what to prepare for down here on the plains.

Rachael Hoagland: Well, good luck with your project. It’ll be exciting to see what you come up with and I appreciate you all taking the time to talk with me today. 

Michael Forsberg: Thank you.

Bob Swanson: Thank you.

Mike Farrell: Thanks.

Rachael Hoagland: This podcast is a product of the US Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.

Show Transcript