Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – working out the city

For the next few days life became surprisingly routine.  For someone who either works from home or travels with a suitcase, the idea of commuting to an office every day is anathema.  But for a week it was a change for me, and while I took the same route up to EROS in the mornings, I tried to vary my route home and orientate myself around Sioux Falls a bit more.

It is not a massive city by American standards, the city itself has a population of about 150,000 but given the rural nature of South Dakota, the metropolitan area is about 1/3 of the entire population of the state.  And like all American cities, especially those set in the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, it sprawls.  The original settlement grew up around the falls, and the railroad had a large depot on the east bank from which several lines converged.  Warehouses and Main Street grew up on more on the west bank, but at the start of the 20th century the town was laid out in a typical grid iron section, thrown out only by the various rivers and railroads that curved unplanned.

Higher class suburbs were perched up on the bluffs above the Sioux River, and the grand Cathedral towers over the falls.  Although only 90 years old it looks like it has commanded the city since Medieval times.  Only the crispness and lack of wear of the masonry belies its 20th Century roots.  Many other grand houses cluster around the cathedral in tree lined streets, but those lovely avenues, mature and settled stretch many streets west of the small downtown area.  The downtown too has been through a regeneration and a couple of streets are now form the hub of nightlife in the city – at least for the young and/or groovy.  For the more suburban or small town amongst the population, the big boulevards and the junctions around the interstates provide all they need; those chain restaurants and fast food joints which I have little time for.  I was advised that there was the best place for me to eat near the hotel was a shopping mall, the Empire.  I did spend an evening or two wandering round and yes the food was cheap but the place was soulless.  The only one of the chains that offered me something a bit more special was the Olive Garden.  I got strange stares from the drivers who passed by as I walked to this restaurant; it was only about half a mile, just across the Sioux River where it started bending round towards the Falls and the downtown area.  Although the nights were freezing, I would pause on the bridge looking at the icy water barely discernible in the blackness, and think of its journey.  It came from the north into Sioux Falls, does a huge S bend which means in the downtown area it is heading north once more, then becomes the state boundary between South Dakota and Iowa down to Sioux City, where it joins with the Missouri and on to merge with the Mississippi just north of St Louis.  I’d seen the Mississippi when I had travelled to Mardi Gras, first crossing the massive iron bridge at Baton Rouge and then on the waterfront of New Orleans.  From there the waters head a further 100 miles in a “Crow’s Foot” Delta, so called because of the shape of all the tiny channels spreading like the toes of a bird into the Gulf of Mexico.  Looking down from the bridge I could not help to marvel at where all those little molecules of water had ahead of them.



Then I was startled by  a Harley Davison, felt how cold it was and hurried back to my centrally heated suite.

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – At the Falls

I thought my first port of call should be the Sioux Falls themselves.  The city grew up around them and now they are protected by an extensive park system along the Sioux River.  While settlement had grown up from the native American period and then the first settlers, the city dramatically expanded with the coming of the railroad, but using the water power from the cascades in the vicinity allowed industrial plants to grow up.  I could see the Falls Park would have probably looked pretty derelict and run down about 30 years back when those industries started to fail, but some inner city regeneration and some good landscaping around the river has now turned this once more into the historical heart of the city.

The falls are a phenomena from the ice age, which deposited huge amounts of the lumpy lands I had driven through earlier, but here eroded the bedrock, a shockingly pink form of quartzite, over which the Sioux River now fell.  The river was very slowly cutting back making a small gorge and a number of cascades, the water splitting in to several channels that dance over the rocks with varying force.  I parked up and wandered around the various viewpoints, then clambered over some of the rocks, but it was a cold day and the light was fading, I gave up and headed back towards the hotel, stopping off at a couple of stores to pick up what I hoped were my supplies for the week, and then collapsing on my very comfy bed to hope that the jetlag was receding.

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – The record of the earth

Maybe the thought of what is to all intent and purpose like a library of satellite images is not exciting to you, but it should be.  I know I was being all nerdy, but the thought should enter your head that this room contained the history of the earth since the 1960s, and not just a selective biased account from a bunch of opinionated historians, but a systematically collected dataset that uniformly recorded the reflectance of the earth’s surface for many years.  To interpret the whole dataset would take longer than life itself has been on the planet, and the archive grows faster than anyone can absorb it, but to know it is there to be referred to is mind blowing.  Snapshots of life on earth are all there – the seasons in every landmass, the swirling weather systems, the human footprint ever growing, the disasters, the ebbs and flows, the stases.

Well it blows my mind.

After the tour and some more work, I knocked off a little early as my energy levels had flagged with jetlag, but I thought some fresh air would be good for me before the sun went down.  When I came out of the building, I realised the snow had vanished but there were still grey skies and bitterly cold winds, and I put the heater on full blast in the car as I drove back to the city.


Some of the earliest satellite imagery exists in these folders

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – In the biggest archive of satellite data known

EROS Data centre is the location of possibly the largest archive of satellite imagery in the world.  It was built in the early 1970s when satellite imagery was starting to be collected routinely at the global scale, and one of the USA’s most ubiquitous sources of satellite imagery had been Landsat.  I had used it ever since I learnt how to be a remote sensor in the early 1990s.  They chose Sioux Falls because they wanted a location which was relatively central to the North American continent to capture the data and download it as the satellites passed overhead.  Not only did they download the imagery, but they archived it, and copied it for others to use.  I remember waiting weeks for data to arrive on large spools, then tape cassettes, then CDs and DVDs.  Now mostly it can be downloaded from the internet.

The storage of all those data was a massive challenge to EROS – especially since those satellites kept on just collecting day and night (even at night you could obtain radar and thermal images).  Underneath the building a basement capable of resisting a nuclear explosion was created and Gray took me down there as part of my tour.  Big parts of it were now empty, but at one time, Gray said, he could remember when every inch was covered in shelf after shelf of cassettes or spools.  Now, he joked, we might as well set up some bowling alleys down here.   Later he took me upstairs and  looked through bullet proof glass at a large room which contained just two large supercomputers. They now contained many times more data than the large basement had ever held in the 1990s.

Back down in the basement, though, was a fascinating archive of the oldest imagery.  There were plastic and metal canisters that contained original film from the early satellites, including from US surveillance forays of Russia and China with the Corona satellite.  The images were parachuted back to earth on film negatives.  Along another row we came across envelopes of the original Landsat MSS imagery again with negatives in.  Gray knew his way around many of these shelves, he was an old remote sensing hand and had spent many an hour searching for imagery he wanted along the aisles.  But when I looked up and down the shelves I saw they disappeared several hundred feet off into the gloom.  Even now, the physical archive was enormous, and the USGS had not got around to digitizing the whole lot.


Archive stretching into the distance


Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Approaching EROS

I saw the sign off for the EROS data centre for the next turning up ahead, and even in the gloom I could tell I was in the right place.  I could see the huge water tower of the complex that had the letters E.R.O.S written across it.  I turned up this road for about a mile and then turned into the complex itself.  Gray had warned me that I was going to get the third degree of security.  I had my passport ready.  I was asked to open the bonnet and trunk and step outside the vehicle, so I hurriedly put on my fleece and stood out in the biting wind.  I tried to stand behind the booth out of this gale but it swirled round me nevertheless.  I was handed a pass to get in the car park and kindly directed down to the reception.  I parked up and hurried over to the entrance and found myself in a huge space that looked like an underused airport.  I was given a pass and asked to wait for Gray to arrive.  I was a bit surprised it was my other colleague Matt who came up the corridor to find me.

The building was huge and mainly on two levels above ground.  The central corridor contained an amazing array of spacecraft, all shiny metal and foil just like in the movies, and the walls were adorned with the most colourful and patterned satellite imagery of every sort from around the world.  We passed by the canteen at the far end of this gallery and Matt led me off to one side to his office.  He did have his own office, it was not particularly open plan in this part, but it was in the central part of the building so he had no window.  He just sat there with huge computer resources, a window on to the rest of the world, as it were.  It was useful to start my work with him as he was running searches for all the imagery I might need for the job in Sierra Leone.  Whereas I had some access to free imagery from outside, he could access the whole archive and because I was working for the US government, hand it over for free.

Gray walked in and we greeted each other like old friends.  The previous times I had met the both of them had been out in Freetown, and it was so nice to find them in their own habitat.  We chatted about the times we had had, started to work out my schedule for the week and what Gray had to show me to get me up to speed. Gray also said he didn’t want to tax me too much on my first day, especially with the jetlag, but was arranging a tour of the EROS centre.


Main Hallway

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Cold start

Gray had suggested not to rush in on the first day, so I planned to head to the EROS data centre around nine.  One of the reasons I had my car was the centre is in the middle of nowhere, about 10 miles north of Sioux Falls city.  Gray lived in another town altogether, and Matt lived out the opposite side of Sioux Falls so I could not rely on lifts.

The hotel had a certain culture.  It was another one of these universal brands that once you had decided you could stay in it you had the system worked out wherever you travelled.   There was no dining room, no breakfast service, you were in a motel and the “suites” element was less it was a number or rooms, but more you could cook for yourself.  Having arrived near midnight the night before, I had not managed to get anything, so had a few cups of filter coffee from the complimentary drinks selection in my room and hoped that lunch was not too far away.  I saw there were machines and a small shop to buy things from the hotel but they looked horribly overpriced and I decided I would wait to do a supermarket shop when I got back from work.

I stepped out of the hotel to icy blasts.  The snow was lying but thin on the ground but the roads had been well gritted.  I carefully drove up I29 to its junction with one of the great routes of the US, the I90 which goes from Seattle to Boston and at over 3000 miles is the longest Interstate in the US.  I followed this for just a few miles before coming off at my junction.  There is very little else down this road so I was not too surprised to see the turning signed to the EROS data centre itself.

I now headed north on this ordinary tarmacced road, it rose steeply from the Interstate.  I was a little surprised to see how undulating the country was.  My impression was the plains were flatter than this.  Gray would of course explain this to me later.

The road bounced over several hillocks and although it was still snowing I could make out just how rural this landscape was.  There were just a handful of farms, a couple of other homesteads or houses along the route.  Every mile I came to a junction where a road would go off at right angles; sometimes I stopped at the junction, sometimes the incoming road gave way.  I saw a few cars coming towards me, there seemed to be a few more heading my direction.  The sky was grey and still full of snow and I wondered whether I had arrived on the first day of winter and my trip to Sioux Falls was to be completely snow bound.  I looked down this straight road with the snow starting to gather on each verge, a long wire fence reaching off into the distance, and I could not help thinking of Fargo.  This was the film not the place, but the city from which the film took its title was only about 200 miles north of where I was driving.


Just that hint of “Fargo”

Bird’s Eye View of a wildfowl state – Delayed Start

Only problem was, the week I was due to go, the USA went broke.  Well the Federal Government went broke.  What that meant effectively was that the budget for the next year had not been agreed.  US financial years start in October and if the numbers are not agreed, all non essential services are put on hold.  Money is found for defence, health care, emergencies, but anything else the staff are told to go home, do not answer emails, do not do any work.  This is punishing for people in research or development who may have ongoing projects which straddle financial years, and it has knock on effects for those who work for them… such as me.  I had signed my contract and had got my plane tickets and now was told I had to sit it out till the budget problems at Capitol Hill had been sorted out.

The shutdown lasted a couple of weeks, past the time I was due to travel , but eventually the problem was solved and a very helpful lady at American Airlines managed to find a way of switching my ticket with minimal penalty.  Unfortunately it meant travelling all the way down to Dallas before coming north again, but as long as I was on my way I was happy.

I had hoped to enjoy a balmy fall in Sioux Falls but the delay meant I was coming up towards the Halloween holiday and the weather was starting to turn nasty in the northern states.  I arrived late at night in the small airport terminal with snow falling on the ground.  After some 18 hours of travel and a six hour time difference, I was already pretty shattered.  I’d arranged to rent a car from the airport and thankfully that process was very quick, and I was able to walk under cover to the car park and get myself to my motel.  I was staying in the Candlewood Suites for a week, right next to I29 and it was all I could do to stay awake and on the icy road to reach the motel.  Check in was US efficient – kinda friendly but not really sincere.  But it was so nice to have a business trip where the arrangements fell in to place and I got what I was expecting.  So different from so many trips to Africa, Asia or the Caribbean.

My rooms were well appointed; I emptied out my suitcase as I always do if I stay more than a couple of nights and flumped into bed, knowing with the time difference I was likely to be awake again in a couple of hours.  However, it was actually about 5 am when I woke up and I was able to watch several iterations of the early morning news on the TV before I needed to get up and head out to the office.


Delays meant the snow had started