On the night of September 1, 2018, I was in downtown Lincoln, enthusiastically waiting to watch the first Cornhusker football game of the Scott Frost era. Right around kickoff, a large thunderstorm moved into Lincoln and lingered. After a nearly three hour delay, the game was canceled, a first since 1943. The rain continued for the remainder of the week, dumping over five inches of rain in Lincoln. Daily precipitation records were broken on September 2nd and 4th.
This precipitation event did not happen by chance. On the night that was supposed to begin a new era in Husker football, a stationary front was positioned directly over Lincoln. Stationary fronts, which are represented on surface weather maps on the local news by a line with semicircles on one side and triangles on the other, lead to periods of precipitation over an extended period of time. Stationary fronts occur when two air masses are pushing against each other, but neither one is strong enough to replace the other.¹
Our time-lapse cameras capture extreme weather events like these across the Platte River Basin from mountains to plains. Just outside of Lincoln, a camera at Marsh Wren Wildlife Saline Wetland captured photographs that show how dramatically the landscape responded to the early September rains. The wetlands in this area, which are home to the endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle, benefit from occasional flooding that helps to replenish their water. Salt Creek tiger beetles require moist saline soils to feed and reproduce.
The Great Plains is known for its extreme weather and climate. Bitterly cold winters and hot, muggy summers are familiar to anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the region. Early settlers in the Great Plains often wrote of immense thunderstorms that would quickly sweep across the prairie. Conversely, in the 1890s and 1930s, droughts ravaged the region and forced thousands to abandon life on the Plains.
Since its installation in 2012, our camera on Shoemaker Lake in the Nebraska Sandhills has captured both periods of extreme drought and wetness. We may see more of these extreme periods in the future as the impacts of climate change play out, according to Al Dutcher, an Extension Agricultural Climatologist with the Nebraska State Climate Office.
“One of the things we try to say with climate change is that it really is an enhancement of the normal conditions you would experience,” Dutcher said.
This enhancement of historic conditions will likely cause a multitude of issues. Droughts and heavy precipitation events are projected to increase in frequency. Rain is essential for agricultural production for obvious reasons. However, severe thunderstorms, like the one we experienced on September 1st, can lead to several problems. First, hail and flooding can decimate crops. Second, during large storms, more water flows directly into waterways, leading to increased erosion and pollution from runoff. Conversely, in the coming years, increasing droughts may lead to water shortages that will put further strain on diminishing water supplies. Although rising temperatures may extend growing seasons, increases in heavy spring rains may delay spring planting.²
It is important to point out the differences between weather and climate. Weather is the short-term conditions in the atmosphere at a given point of time. Climate is the long-term trends in atmospheric conditions. The precipitation event captured by our time-lapse cameras is an example of weather. If our cameras are on the landscape for several decades, we will be able to see climatic trends over that period of time. Currently, there are more than 60 time-lapse cameras collecting visual data across the Platte Basin. In the coming decades, the photos from these cameras will serve as invaluable sets of data that will show how the climate of the Platte Basin has changed over time.
There is still uncertainty surrounding the impacts of climate change on extreme weather. However, extreme precipitation events in the United States have increased steadily since the 1980s.³ During this time, our ability to predict these events has also improved. In 1981, the Nebraska Mesonet (at the time it was called the Automated Data Weather Network) was started by Agricultural Meteorology faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with five weather monitoring stations. Every hour, the stations in the network recorded a multitude of variables, including air temperature, humidity, and liquid precipitation. Today, there are 68 stations spread across the state. These stations, along with similar stations in neighboring states, collect valuable data about the region’s weather and climate. This increase in monitoring stations along with improved computer processing capabilities means we will be better able to understand these events and forecast them further into the future.
Going forward, it will be increasingly important to expand our understanding of weather and climate in order to address the challenges that climate change will present. Technology, such as mesonet stations and time-lapse cameras, will help us do this. But ultimately, mitigating the impacts of climate change will require us to change our behavior. Everyone on our planet will be impacted by climate change in one way or another. It will be up to us all to find ways to reduce our footprint, so we can leave a better planet for future generations.
Platte Basin Timelapse Image Gallery
Since our time-lapse cameras were first put in place in 2011, they have captured images showing just how much weather in the Platte Basin varies from year to year. The following images highlight how this variability dramatically impacts the various landscapes throughout the Platte Basin.