‘They’re not 
just pictures’

Michael Forsberg and Michael Farrell portrait
Natural Resources

‘They’re not 
just pictures’

Platte basin timelapse captures images 
of a watershed in motion.

Interview with Michael Forsberg and Michael Farrell by Bryce Doeschot

A camera placed in the heart of a canyon overlooks a bald eagle’s nest near Fort Collins, Colorado. Five hundred miles away, a separate camera faces the Platte River. In between the two cameras are more than 50 additional cameras, all part of the Platte Basin Timelapse project. Each daylight hour of each and every day, the cameras capture a photo with the goal of allowing others to see the Platte River Basin watershed in motion.

A watershed is an area of land that separates water flowing to different rivers, basins or seas. The Platte River Basin stretches across parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, supports agriculture and grassland ecosystems, and harbors more than half of the Ogallala Aquifer. 

“The idea behind this project was to show how water moves through a system from the highest point in a watershed to the lowest point in the watershed,” said Michael Farrell, a 43-year veteran of public broadcasting and an award-winning documentary producer. 

“We have cameras that are looking at natural features. We have cameras that are looking at agricultural landscapes in both ranching landscapes and crop field production,” said Michael Forsberg, a conservation photographer and Senior Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, who also has ties to National Geographic. 

Together, Farrell and Forsberg created the Platte Basin Timelapse project in 2011. Farrell and Forsberg serve as assistant professors of practice in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication and as courtesy assistant professors of practice in the School of Natural Resources in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The Platte Basin Timelapse project is in partnership with the University of Nebraska Center for Great Plains Studies.

IN THE BEGINNING 

Farrell and Forsberg began working together while Farrell produced a documentary based on Forsberg’s book: “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild.” 

“We spent months traveling around the Great Plains going to various locations,” Farrell said. 

Forsberg noticed that the places they visited along the Platte Basin had changed since he visited the locations first to take pictures for his book and then to record the documentary with Farrell. 

“The land had changed, the people had changed, the situation had changed,” Forsberg said. “You can write about it, you can measure it, but what if you could see it?” Forsberg brought up the idea, which would lead to something much bigger than either expected. 

“At one point we’re driving along, and Mike (Forsberg) said ‘You know, it would be really interesting if we could timelapse the entire Platte River Basin,’” Farrell said. 

Both Farrell and Forsberg had developed a love for the Platte Basin through their work, and each had the desire to extend the project. The two men wanted to create a story about the Platte Basin
and water. 

“I was trying to get people to think about where their water comes from, what is a watershed anyway, and why does it matter,” Forsberg said.  

PARTNERING IN THE PLATTE BASIN 

With an idea in mind, Forsberg and Farrell knew they would need key partners to assist in the funding of the project. 

Forsberg said the two began to look for funding for the project. The result was a partnership between the university and Nebraska Educational Television, which continued until 2017, when they and the project moved to a partnership with the university’s Center for Great Plains Studies. Funding has expanded to include other entities, including: 

  • University of Nebraska–Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • The Cooper Foundation 
  • The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program 
  • The Nebraska Corn Board 
  • The Nebraska Soybean Board 
  • Daugherty Water for Food Institute  
  • Claire M. Hubbard Foundation 
  • Other private donations and grants 

After securing funding for the Platte Basin Timelapse project, Farrell and Forsberg set out to place cameras across the Platte Basin. 

Forsberg said he and Farrell decided on the locations to address the three key sources of water in the Platte Basin: weather and climate, clouds in the sky and snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. 

The cameras are placed across the Platte Basin with camera systems as high as 20 feet, to cameras placed at ground level. Each camera is placed in a weatherproof housing box, which contains additional technology that allows images to be taken; images are sent to a cloud-based system and stored on computers in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The first cameras were placed throughout the 90,000-square-mile basin and began capturing images in 2011. 

CAMERAS AS RESEARCH, DATA

To date, the Platte Basin Timelapse project has captured more than one million photos but according to Farrell, capturing the image is only the beginning of the story. 

“The first order of business is all these images are available on our website (plattebasintimelapse.com),” Farrell said. 

Creating timelapse images includes combining a sequence of images to record the changes that take place over time. 

In addition to sharing videos and photos on the website and social media, the Platte Basin Timelapse project works with organizations to create educational materials. 

 “We’re finishing up a grant for the Nebraska Environmental Trust that has let us create modules that teachers can use in the classroom based on our imagery, and based on other imagery that we’re providing in addition to the timelapses,” Farrell said. 

The partnerships also extend into production agriculture. The Platte Basin Timelapse project has worked with both the Nebraska Soybean Board and Nebraska Corn Board to create materials that can assist the two boards. 

“We put timelapse cameras on center pivots, so we actually have cameras that are moving around in a big circle now, and getting wet during the summer watching corn grow, watching soybeans grow, so we’re using the raw materials to create visualizations that will allow us to tell stories, or to educate people," Farrell said.

Forsberg believes that in addition to the creative and visual aspect, the images can be used in cooperation with scientists who are conducting field work.  

“Besides stories with these images another great value to them is that they’re just not pictures. You can see erosion, deposition and sedimentation, and you can see how removing a cedar tree off a landscape helps the prairie come back,” Forsberg said. “These cameras are also research tools.”

Forsberg said scientists and researchers currently are adding sensors on the landscape to measure a variety of data, such as water quality. By working with the Platte Basin Timelapse project, the researchers have access to see the landscape in addition to the data from the sensor. 

Additionally, in the future, the Platte Basin Timelapse project will be featured in a documentary film for public television. 

EXTENDING THE EXPERIENCE  

When leaders at the university agreed to fund the Platte Basin Timelapse project, one contingency was that Farrell and Forsberg would both teach a course about how to tell a story about something that changes over time. 

“We created a class called Digital Photography and Storytelling, with the idea that we would have a cohort of students every year that would get to learn a lot of the tools that we’re applying in the Platte Basin Timelapse project,” Forsberg said. Each semester, university students are able to enroll in the course with Forsberg and Farrell. The classroom often includes trips into the fields where cameras are set up as part of the project. 

Forsberg and Farrell agree that the work they do in the classroom is just as important as the work in the field. 

“I can’t think of anything better than the teaching part of what I do. If I had to give up all the rest of it, I’d still want to hang onto that,” Farrell said. 

“There’s nothing better than to see that light go on, and see kids struggle, but don’t let them slip through the cracks, and help them overcome the challenges, and then come out the other side with something that they can share and show whether or not it’s a documentary short film, or it’s a multimedia piece, or a website, or something, but it’s really rewarding, and I think a tremendous skill set that students need to have today,” Forsberg said.