• March 2, 2015

The Incredible Feat of Photographing a Watershed in Motion


I’ve attached an aerial image from last Friday evening [above]. This one looks at a powerful spring pushing up through the ice of a Platte River backwater.

I’ve seen this on a very small scale walking frozen creeks in winter fed by groundwater, but this was quite amazing at 800 feet. Groundwater is difficult to capture in a beautiful way in an image. I guess it takes getting up in the air sometimes to see it.



I’ve been corresponding with photographer Mike Forsberg for many months, learning about his impressive project, the Platte Basin Timelapse, which photographically follows water in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska from the mountains to the plains, in an attempt to capture a watershed in motion.

Often in his emails he includes a recent photo and story from his travels. Like this one:

Picture of the Platte River


Here’s an aerial view of the Platte River in Nebraska. This is the welcoming view that 500,000 migrating cranes will soon see as they begin to wing northward through the heart of the Great Plains.



I told Forsberg that every photo he sends me is a gift. And I mean it, because Forsberg is the kind of guy who makes you feel like every picture he sends, and every story he tells, is personal and special.

So magnify that special sense of storytelling on a grand scale, and you get the Platte Basin Timelapse (or PBT as the team calls it). It’s a project so impressive in scope that it’s almost hard to sum up.

Platte Basin Timelapse video with music by Sarah Brey.

The PBT website contains time-lapse images from around the 90,000-square-mile watershed, multimedia stories, a detailed map showing the location of the cameras, and an entertaining blog written by team members, some of whom are students at the University of Nebraska. (One post is titled “How to Take Hundreds of Thousands of Images and Not Go Insane.”) They are also working on an education component for schools, as well as a feature-length documentary.

“[We’re] simply trying to get people to understand, when they turn on that faucet and fill up that glass, that water is actually coming from somewhere,” says Forsberg. “And in a lot of cases that place is actually a long ways away, and how it gets to your glass is a really interesting journey. Where does that water come from? How is it used? Who makes those decisions? And why?”

In short, Forsberg, co-founder Mike Farrell, and their team are trying to show change over time, and to make you realize how truly precious your water is, whether you live in the Great Plains or on a coast far away.

Picture of timelapse images from Nebraska.
A sliced picture composed of time-lapse images, taken over the course of a year, from ‘Mick’s Slide’ in the Nebraska Sandhills.
Photograph by Mariah Lundgren

To make that happen, the PBT team set up more than 40 Nikon digital cameras in solar-powered waterproof housings, mounted on everything from granite cliffs, to posts in the sand, to along prairie streams. Each camera takes one picture per hour, from sunrise to sunset, every day. By the end of this year Forsberg says they will have more than a million images in their archive. They then string those images together to form time-lapse videos that capture the changing watershed over a number of years.

“Everything that we are doing is trying to see a watershed in motion, trying to explain what a watershed is, to get people to understand that nature doesn’t know any straight lines, neither does water, and a watershed is a living breathing organism that is constantly changing,” says Forsberg.

Amazingly, and unexpectedly, the project captured the Platte Basin at both ends of the water spectrum—one year in a flood situation, and the other in a drought.

Lied Platte River Bridge—High Water Year to Low Water Year from Platte Basin Timelapse.

Over four years, the image-gathering process has gone through some changes. At first, the team was manually retrieving the digital cards and cataloging all the images by hand. But it didn’t always work smoothly.

“We’d sometimes come back a few months later to find the camera wasn’t working, or a bird had pooped on the filter, or a mouse had chewed on a cord, or the camera post had fallen over,” says Forsberg. Now, the cameras send images directly to a server in Lincoln, Nebraska, via cellular network or satellite, and the team’s biggest problems are curious wildlife and spiders building webs in front of the lenses.

Picture of an infrared camera setup in central Nebraska powered by the sun.
An infrared camera set up in central Nebraska powered by the sun. It’s watching a beaver lodge, although raccoon, otter, mink, raptors, and blackbirds also visit.
Picture of a raccoon caught in a camera trap. 'The masked bandits keep messing with my gear and unplugging things, but I can't help but like them anyway' says Forsberg.
A raccoon caught in a camera trap. ‘The masked bandits keep messing with my gear and unplugging things, but I can’t help but like them anyway,’ says Forsberg.

Forsberg says he was inspired, in part, by photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, which takes time-lapse images of glaciers to show the impact of climate change.

“Photography is a really powerful tool, and it’s an international language so everyone can understand it,” he says. “The Platte Basin doesn’t have to be your watershed, but [the stories] can be applied to any watershed in the whole world, whether it’s a creek in your backyard, or the Zambezi in Africa. It’s just a way to communicate, whether it’s to my mom or to a highbrow scientist.”

Picture of Birdwood Creek in Nebraska.
An aerial image of Birdwood Creek in the Nebraska Sandhills. The creek is entirely spring-fed by groundwater flow from the Ogallala Aquifer. Streams like these are critical habitats for wintering waterfowl, including trumpeter swans.

“It’s something that’s very personal to me as a photographer,” he continues. “You go to a place to shoot something and your subject says: ‘You should have been here yesterday, or last year, or five years, or ten years ago. You should have seen it then.’ You can’t go back in time to those places, but you can do that now with time-lapse photography moving forward.”

See the full scope of the Platte Basin Timelapse at www.plattebasintimelapse.com and follow the team on Instagram and Twitter.

Mike Forsberg is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, and a fellow with the University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies and the Water for Food Institute. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and their two daughters. Visit him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

More from Mike Forsberg on Proof: Moving Slowly to Capture the Swift Fox

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. patricia mac gregor maciel
    April 25, 2015

    i just love what you photographers do. it so wonderful to see all of gods creations

  2. james
    April 21, 2015

    this is really cool it helps me at school and gives me a lot of answers i uesd some of ur pics for my slide about grass land very cool

  3. james
    April 21, 2015

    this does not make a diffrents

  4. Bradley Leima
    April 4, 2015

    I am really interested to read more about National. Geography please send me copies of your magazine.

  5. Human singh
    March 31, 2015

    this is a thing for gratitude for the nature is .

  6. Jim Swinehart
    March 7, 2015

    Stunning opening image- I see a stained glass window down the road. Wish I could have been there. Many great memories of good times at Mick’s Slide. Thanks, Mike

  7. Mark Shaver
    March 5, 2015

    I live near the South Platte, and have my entire life. You see pictures and films such as this and you realize what you take for granted as “regular” or normal when the beauty is really quite unique and phenomenal.

  8. Kery
    March 4, 2015

    The Birdwood Creek photo is amazing. It clearly shows the power of the sun in the northern and southern aspects of the creek banks as well as the myriad of game trails braiding each side.

  9. Dave Mason
    March 4, 2015

    The Nebraska Sandhills are beautiful and under-appreciated. I visited them in July 2013 and hope to return.

  10. Goreth Z. Bendoy
    March 3, 2015

    Wow!! Thanks a lot, your project is very significant. Hope you won’t stop…

  11. Scott Miller
    March 3, 2015

    So cool that Mike can highlight so many hidden gems. Beautiful.

  12. Tim Crockett
    March 3, 2015

    Mike’s body of work highlights our precious resources, and his passion is all inspiring. Great work Mike!!

  13. Mom
    March 3, 2015

    Sandhills creek air photo awesome

  14. Mom
    March 3, 2015

    the creek in Sandhills so cool from air photo …

  15. Teal Gardner
    March 2, 2015

    Proud of the work being done in Nebraska! Go team!

  16. Stan how
    March 2, 2015

    I am so happy that Mike is telling that important and critical story.

  17. Jim Fried
    March 2, 2015

    Kudos! An excellent article about an excellent project.

  18. arby
    March 2, 2015

    Beautiful, thank you.

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