Platte River basin compressed through time-lapse photography

2012-04-03T06:00:00Z Platte River basin compressed through time-lapse photographyBy ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The story of the Platte River includes water cascading over a Wyoming dam, a winter storm in the Colorado mountains and the evolution of a sandbar in Nebraska.

Those stories, and countless others, are featured in the Platte Basin Time-lapse Project created by Michael Forsberg, the well-known wildlife and conservation photographer, and Michael Farrell, a production manager for NET Television.

They are setting up a system of special cameras over the Platte's 90,000-square-mile river basin to take a photograph every hour in daylight. So far, 23 cameras are operational. They plan to install 22 more by the end of the year.

"The premise is to show people where their water's coming from," Forsberg said. "We wanted to follow this drop of water from the top of the Continental Divide all the way downstream where the water dumps into the Missouri River."

Forsberg and Farrell hope their work will give scientists and the public a better understanding of the Platte River and its many tributaries, which are the lifeblood of a vast watershed made up of mountains, prairies and croplands.

"We're putting the ecosystem in motion," Forsberg said.

Added Farrell: "We're seeing it unfold over time."

The two men began their ambitious project in March 2011. They set their first camera along the Platte River at Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon.

They soon learned a valuable lesson. Where you place a camera is very important. They had to move the camera to higher ground due to spring floods.

"You don't know what you don't know when you do this stuff," Forsberg said.

Many of the cameras are set up in remote locations. For instance, there's a camera on a beaver pond along Jack Creek, at about 9,600 feet, in north-central Colorado. 

Sometimes, they had to use snowmobiles and snowshoes to get into the mountainous back country. Last year was tough, they said, because in some areas, the snow pack was more than 200 percent of normal.

"This takes a team of people to do," Forsberg said.

Some of the other camera locations include: Pathfinder Reservoir in Wyoming, a field in Buffalo County, Box Falls on a ranch in Cherry County, a water tank and windmill at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory, and at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers near Plattsmouth.

There were dozens of places where they could have placed cameras, but Forsberg and Farrell said they selected locations that were representative of how mankind and nature use water.

Forsberg said they looked at the Platte River basin as a giant "bath tub," where most of the water comes from snow melt and rain in the Rockies, is stored in rivers and aquifers, and is drained into the Missouri River.

Each camera is in a waterproof box equipped with a solar power unit, a battery and a digital software device to tell the camera when to take photographs.

Thousands of photographs are downloaded during periodic site visits. The two men hope to use cellphone technology eventually to "save them an enormous amount of time and trouble" and cut down on the number of trips.

"It's like running a rural mail route," Forsberg said.

Added Farrell: "A big, long one."

Forsberg and Farrell compare each camera location to an environmental monitoring station much like remote weather stations. But with an important difference.

"They are not collecting numbers. They are collecting visual data," Forsberg said. "The value for science is they are putting a face to the numbers. ... Each camera location is a chapter in the story of the Platte River."

Nikon Corp. donated about one-third of the cameras and provided the rest at half price, Farrell said. The computerized-control system was designed and built by their friend Jeff Dale of Lincoln and his company TRLcam. Bill Hager, another photographer from Lincoln, figured out ways to mount the cameras on trees, posts and other structures. 

Financial support was provided by The Cooper Foundation in Lincoln, the Platte River Recovery Program at Kearney and UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, where Forsberg and Farrell are part of the faculty.

Forsberg and Farrell want their basin project to last for decades, giving scientists, teachers, students and the public valuable insights into the Platte River basin and its finite water resources.

"Photography is an incredible tool -- a great communicator," Forsberg said. "You don't need a lot of fancy language. It can help bridge science and education. It's a great connector."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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