'Windmills,' Isohyets, and Other Wonders of the Great Plains From Above

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Late last night I put up a few pictures from a flight across the parched Great Plains and cropland region. Closing-the-circle updates:

1) This morning on our site, Rebecca Rosen posted some satellite photos showing how different even the mighty Mississippi River looks from space this year, compared with one year ago.

Thumbnail image for RIVERSCENE.jpg2) The mystery river of which I posted a photo, whose bed now appears to be mainly sand surrounding a little trickle of water, has been identified by many readers in Nebraska as the Platte. (Yes, OK, that's what I thought, but I wasn't sure I'd taken that photo while passing south of Omaha, and I was living in dread of the messages coming in on the theme of, "Don't you know anything about the Midwest? You say it's the Platte, when it's actually ...." Crowd sourced fact-checking has changed life, generally for the better.*)

When I wrote back to one reader, who is a senior University of Nebraska official, to confirm that this substantial river looked different from the way it had before, he replied:

Yes, the drought has really hurt the Platte and all the surface rivers in Nebraska and Midwest - I think around June the state restricted use for irrigation of surface streams and rivers but they could still pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer which sits right below Western Nebraska - It is also drying up but that mainly affects Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas since the underground reservoir of the aquifer is much smaller in those states.

3) After a westbound trip last week, I mentioned that the center of America looked as if the rainfall line that separates well-watered farmland from arid rangeland and desert had been shifted dramatically to the east. Professor John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M, who is the State Climatologist for Texas, writes in to confirm:

The change in vegetation you see from the plane also shows up from a higher altitude.

The view from space last year: scene 1, scene 2

The view from space this year: scene 1, scene 2

P.S. Select the 250m resolution option to zoom in so close you can see every individual irrigated field.

4) On the same topic, a reader weighs in about a book I know and for which I share his high regard. The third sentence has bonus value on the "expand your vocabulary" front. (Maybe you had encountered "isohyetal" before. I hadn't.)

I highly recommend Wallace Stegner's book "Beyond The Hundredth Meridian."  It is in large part a biography of John Wesley Powell, who is believed to be the first to run the Colorado River from Wyoming through the Grand Canyon (first in in 1869 and then again in 1871-2).  The title refers to the isohyetal line of 20 inches of annual rainfall.  The line moves by a couple of degrees, but is otherwise a pretty consistent marker of where un-irrigated crops cannot grow because 20 inches generally isn't enough.  Powell was fascinated by the implications of aridity; among other things, he felt strongly that homestead laws that worked well in the East couldn't simply be transported to the West.
 
Powell became Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and then Director of Ethnology at the Smithsonian and later wrote a report for which he was roundly ridiculed called "Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States."  In the report, he advocated that government boundaries in the West be organized by water basins so as to effectively manage scarce water resources and reduce disputes.  Like Wallace Stegner, Powell was way ahead of his time in understanding the effect of aridity and scarce water supplies in the West.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Windmills.jpg5) Last night I referred to the numerous "windmills" you see through Nebraska and Iowa. A reader in the wind-energy business reminds me that the correct term is "wind turbines," a windmill implying something that pumps water or does other useful work, like grinding grain] rather than generating electricity. Good point. At 1:30 last night, when I was posting the item, I had that vague "this is not the mot juste" feeling -- but, hey, it was 1:30 am, I had started the day in central Nebraska, and it was time for a beer.

Although I forgot the right term, I know enough about the disputes over wind energy to want to stay out of that fray. But for the record, the reader says of wind turbines, like those above:

Iowa is impressive - it reached its target of 20% of its electricity from wind, I think the most for any state.  Also, over a one hour period, Excel Energy, a Colorado utility, reported that it provided more than 50% of its electricity from wind.

A few more updates and elaborations have come in, on subjects from "trona" to airports in the Great Plains, but this will do for now. Thanks all around.
__
* An example of the kind of mail that is fun to receive. I do realize that Andrew Sullivan has no doubt trained legions of people in these skills with his "View from Your Window" contests

From some Google Maps sleuthing, I think that photo of the river full of sediment is the Platte River. If you put this address into Google Maps I think you'll find it matches your shot:
     13802 Biels Dike Rd
     Gretna‎ Nebraska‎ 68028
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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