The Platte Basin is located in the heart of the United States of America, encompassing a broad diversity of landscapes and habitats. From the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado to the Great Plains of Nebraska, this watershed, waters cities, small farming communities, and provides habitat for wildlife.

The Platte Basin is made up of five sub basins, the North Platte, South Platte, Central Platte, Lower Platte and the Loups. Fueled by snowpack and precipitation, the North and South Platte contain the headwaters of the Platte River, eventually merging to form the main stem Platte River. The Platte River then flows throughout the Central Platte to the Lower Platte where it runs into the Missouri River. The Loups’ streams and rivers are fueled by groundwater from the mighty Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in North America, which spans throughout parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

The Platte Basin. The dots are all individual camera locations within the Platte Basin. The Colored dots represent the cameras used for the data visualization.

This Great Plains watershed has seen two dramatically different years, 2012, a year of drought and record low rainfall and 2015 a year of heavy precipitation. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) captured this change in weather patterns with their discharge stations set up all over the country. Time-lapse cameras installed by co-founders Michael Forsberg and Michael Farrell are placed within the Platte Basin near these USGS stations and take one photograph every hour of daylight, every day, 365 days a year. Through these photos, we can see the difference in stream flow rates and pair them with USGS streamflow data.

Seminoe State Park, Sunshine Beach, North Platte, Wyoming. Photos taken three years apart during the same time of year with dramatic differences in water level. 2012 (Left); 2015 Right)

One of the first USGS stations I looked at is at Seminoe State Park, Sunshine Beach, located in Wyoming. The headwaters of the North Platte River are fed through this reservoir, and the amounts of snowmelt and rainfall are being monitored. The picture above shows the dramatic difference in precipitation these years experienced. The snowmelt and precipitation then flow from the headwaters down to the Central Platte.

Audubon Rowe Sanctuary, Central Platte, Nebraska. Photos taken three years apart during the same time of year with dramatically different water levels. 2012 (Left); 2015 (Right)

The second USGS station I looked at is near Rowe Crane Cam and Rowe Tower located in Central Nebraska at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary. This part of the river runs through farming communities which landowners regularly use to irrigate their crops and supply water for their livestock. The livelihoods of Nebraska farmers and wildlife depend on the flow of water through the Platte. Further East, it meets with another time-lapse camera location.

Lied Platte Bridge, Lower Platte, Nebraska. Photos taken three years apart during the same time of year with dramatically different water levels. 2012 (Left); 2015 (Right)

The last USGS streamflow data station I looked at is near the Lied Platte Bridge located in Eastern Nebraska near the Platte-Missouri River Confluence. This USGS streamflow station monitors all sorts of water related data from the far western reaches of the Platte Basin all the way to the eastern border. These monitoring systems are critical for understanding how to conserve water within the watershed better.

All of the subbasins within the Platte Basin are interconnected. The water level changes captured by time-lapse cameras and USGS monitoring stations upstream within the Platte can also be seen downstream. As the snowmelt increases upstream at Seminoe State Park, the water levels can be seen fluctuating all the way gradually downstream past the Lied Platte Bridge to the Platte-Missouri River confluence. Through our time-lapse cameras, we can see the interconnectivity of the entire watershed system.

By combining time-lapses from both 2012 and 2015 with the stream flow data, data visualization is easier than ever. The time-lapse cameras have captured what the numbers from the stream flow data charts represent. Being able to put a visual representation of water levels with the numbers from charts gives the public a complete understanding of what those numbers look like.

During drought and high water years, time-lapse technology can help government agencies physically see the available water for irrigation, communities and industrial usage. This can contribute to implementing conservation plans to regulate water consumption, not only with the Platte River but with the Ogallala Aquifer as well. In many parts of Nebraska, the Ogallala Aquifer levels are rising. However, the majority of the aquifer is being depleted by over consumption within the other states it resides under. Being able to pair data with time-lapse imagery, the conservation of these water sources can take precedence to ensure there will be water within the Platte Basin for generations to come.

Stream Flow data is one of many types of data that can be visualized through time-lapse photography. There are endless ways to show the physical changes within an environment to support scientific findings. The ability to communicate science to the public in visually innovative ways could significantly increase the understanding of scientific articles and experiments. The applications of showing morphological, ecological, and physical traits within an environment or habitat could change the way science is distributed to the public.

Another great example of climate data visualization is James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey. (http://extremeicesurvey.org/)

 

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