The Science of Sustainability

Beyond Plain Sight

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Think the Great Plains is no more than a flat, endless landscape, often called “flyover country”?

Michael Forsberg

Michael Forsberg

Think again. Through the lens of native Nebraskan photographer and author Michael Forsberg, the Great Plains is far from “plain.” For 20 years, Forsberg has been documenting the habitats of his home turf. For him, the Great Plains is an extraordinary, immense, and unanticipated wonderland of species and habitats, including an essential flyway for millions of migratory birds.

Depicting the true nature and meaning of the plains has become a personal mission. Forsberg has a degree in geography, and he uses photography to generate a discussion about the world. “Geography is a perspective that emphasizes space and place and ecology — and how everything connects with everything else,” he said.

Great Plains map and landscape

The 12 states that make up the Great Plains account for an astonishing one-quarter of the U.S., covering one million square miles that are anything but flat. If it was its own country, the Great Plains would be the tenth largest in the world by area.

But only 30 percent of the Great Plains would be considered flat. For example, Nebraska topography is like an inclined tabletop. If you took off from Omaha (elevation 1,090 feet) and flew west across the undulating terrain at a steady elevation of 2,000 feet, you would crash into the ground 450 miles away at Scottsbluff, Nebraska (elevation 3,891 ft).

Rainbow and butterfly milkweed, Konza Prairie, Kansas

Rainbow and butterfly milkweed, Konza Prairie, Kansas [Click to enlarge]

“This land is a place where grass rules over trees,” said Forsberg. “It’s a place so immense you feel very small. It’s not the mountains. It’s not the Grand Canyon. But it’s every bit as remarkable — a really diverse landscape. It’s a place where the more you linger, the more beauty you’ll see.”

The unexpected natural beauty that Forsberg captures on film fills a book he authored, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, and many of these images appear in an NET Television documentary by the same name broadcast on PBS.

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana. Photo: Michael Forsberg. [Click to enlarge]

They include a lone bison roaming the sun-swept prairie, a dazzling rainbow framing colorful milkweed in a prairie meadow, a solitary cougar prowling the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota at night, majestic cliffs rising over a river in Montana, a burrowing owl with outstretched wings and a laser-piercing stare, and a frolicking Sandhill crane leaping for joy in a courtship dance.

Sandhill Cranes

During breeding season, Sandhill Cranes display elaborate dancing rituals to attract a mate. Photo: Michael Forsberg. [Click to enlarge]

America's Lingering Wild

Forsberg cautions that this bounty of natural wonder is a gift that needs to be protected, now and for the future. A century ago much of the Great Plains was wide-open territory, a broad expanse of natural prairie, wetlands, and rivers. But today only a patchwork of these environments remains because of widespread development. Forsberg refers to these pockets of refuge as “America’s lingering wild,” where species and habitats are literally hanging on for survival. And some of his most striking images, seen from the air, point to a vast ecosystem at risk.

Aerial, pothole wetlands, North Dakota

Aerial, pothole wetlands, North Dakota. Photo: Michael Forsberg. [Click to enlarge]

In a territory where half of our nation’s ducks breed annually, only the remains of tiny green patches of irregular wetlands are seen from the air in North Dakota, dwarfed by crop fields of wheat and canola. In the past 50 years, nesting waterfowl have declined dramatically as areas cultivated for high commodity crops, including corn for ethanol production, have overrun these duck-nesting habitats.

Aerial, gas and oil fields, Wyoming

Aerial, gas and oil fields, Wyoming. Photo: Michael Forsberg. [Click to enlarge]

Elsewhere, the once rugged and wild Wyoming landscape is scarred and dissected by networks of roads for oil and natural gas development.

And the arid, fragile plains of Texas contain whitish, ghostly rings of former shallow, circular wetlands called playas, now replaced by dried fields cultivated by center-pivot irrigation.

Ghostly rings of a Texas playa (wetland).

Ghostly rings of a Texas playa (wetland). Photo: Michael Forsberg. [Click to enlarge]

Forsberg laments that the Great Plains, like most temperate grasslands of the world, includes the most endangered habitats on the planet because they’ve been drastically altered from their natural state.

“It’s all been plowed up for agriculture,” said Forsberg. “The Great Plains is the world’s breadbasket. It’s increasingly being asked to be our energy pump. And it sits on the Holy Grail of the High Plains:  the Ogallala Aquifer.” This aquifer is the largest underground system of water-saturated sediments in the country,  what Forsberg refers to as “the Saudi Arabia of water.” The Ogallala Aquifer sits beneath the expansive prairie that runs from the Dakotas to Texas. It is the ecological underpinning of all life in the Great Plains.

It is little wonder that water figures prominently in Forsberg’s imagery. Geography is at the core of his work, and water is central to the Plains. And with a changing climate and reoccurring drought, Forsberg realizes that his imagery is becoming even more important to showcase the fragile nature of nature itself. “If you don’t have water, you don’t have life. We need to know where our water comes from,” he said.

To the Water Source

Forsberg is convinced that most people give little thought to the source of their water. It’s just pervasive,  at the tip of our fingertips. Need water? Turn on a faucet. Where does it come from? Who knows?

Forsberg explained, “In Nebraska we get our water from the snowpack in the Rockies as snow melt. We get it from the Ogallala Aquifer as groundwater. And we also get water from our weather and climate.”

In most places across the country the answer would be similar: water originates in a watershed or water basin. These are geographical features of all landscapes nationwide. A terrain’s basin acts like a funnel, draining all surface water from its highest elevation to its lowest point. In Nebraska, the Platte River Basin is enormous. It takes up most of Nebraska and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Timelapse camera and Missouri River

At select locations throughout the Platte River Basin, automated timelapse cameras record the daily ebb and flow of the watershed. [Click to enlarge]

Depicting the vast watershed at work in pictures is a challenge.  Forsberg knows it couldn’t be done with a single camera. But what if there were many?  And not just any camera. Forsberg partnered with NET Television colleague Mike Farrell and technology expert Jeff Dale of TRLcam, to custom design a series of weatherproof automated time-lapse cameras. “We thought, what if we took a watershed and put time-lapse cameras throughout the entire water basin? And then followed that water hundreds of miles until it came to the mouth of where it empties into the Missouri River,” stated Forsberg. And so, Platte Basin Timelapse(PBT) was born.

Map of cameras for the Platte Basin Timelapse project.

Map of cameras for the Platte Basin Timelapse project. [Click to enlarge]

The PBT team then selected 45 locations, from the headwaters at Lake Agnes, Colorado, throughout the Platte River, and ending at the convergence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers. At each location a time-lapse camera is programmed to take one photo every hour, every day, year-round. They’ve now recorded an unprecedented three-year visual database of the watershed. By summer, there will be over a million photos!

When the PBT team began, they hoped to record the ebb and flow of the watershed through time, including normal water cycles, flooding, and drought. Unexpectedly, they hit the jackpot right away. In 2011, parts of the Great Plains experienced double the average snow melt and runoff from the Rocky Mountains, heavy rains, and massive flooding. A year later, in 2012, a historic drought created bone-dry conditions.

Each month the PBT team posts time-lapse sequences on the Platte Basin Timelapse website for the public to view and learn the water cycles and how a watershed functions.

Forsberg believes that the PBT Project will act as a template that can be applied to watersheds around the world. “I want people to understand a little bit more about the world in which they live and the natural processes that they rely on to care for the landscape we call home.”

EDUCATORS:  Check out the QUEST digital learning objects on watersheds and aquifers!

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Category: Biodiversity, Environment, Television, Video, Water

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Gary Hochman

About the Author ()

Gary is a senior producer at NET Television. He’s produced documentaries worldwide, bringing science to audiences through TV, the web, museums, and schools. Gary has twice received the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award. His recent documentary, NOVA: Secrets Beneath The Ice, examines how researchers explore, drill and prospect to detect how Antarctica’s climate history can forecast Earth’s global climate future. His national productions include: NOVA: Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land, NOVA: Buried In Ash, NOVA: Edgerton and His Incredible Seeing Machines, Behind Lab Doors, Jungle Under Glass, Profit the Earth, Sexuality and Aging, and Seeking the Real Jesse James.