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

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – A geographer’s dream come true.

And yet, I went to one place in the States where I came to the conclusion its residents really did have no need to travel further.  At one time they had struggled to make their landscape inhabitable and productive, and now they had got it just right there was no need to go spoiling the balance.  Once home there you would be happy.

The location of this Shangri-La may surprise you.  It is South Dakota.

I never dreamed I would go to South Dakota, but the opportunity arose out of the work I had been conducting in, of all places, Sierra Leone.  I’d worked with the US Forest Service out there who were interested in measuring the impact of my project in terms of the land use changes over a period of time since the project had started.  The whole point of the project was to protect the forest there that was being decimated by logging, charcoal burning, shifting cultivation and climate change.  They wanted me to map various parts of the region to see the different effects, look for trends and see whether protection had improved the forest, or at least decreased the rate of decline.  To do this I was to use similar techniques similar to a great colleague of mine who had also worked with me out in West Africa, Gray Tappan.

Gray, and his colleague Matt Cushing worked for the US Geological Survey, one of those huge federal monoliths that even to many laymen in the US would be a household names.  They made so may maps people used, recorded earthquakes, mapped the vegetation, rivers, geology, climate and all sorts.  I knew of them from the time I started as a geographer at Durham University at the age of 18, and when I was working for NRI and started using satellite imagery, I found myself ordering data from the USGS Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science, or the EROS Data Center, in Sioux Falls.  Now I was being asked to go there to learn Gray’s techniques and start my work on Sierra Leone in their offices.  As a geographical geek it was like going to the Vatican, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden Palace.  This was my Mecca.



Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – England’s way north of Greenland”

It’s an interesting dichotomy.  I find it amazing that the urban landscape does not change much across the whole US – the road signs, the fire hydrants, the streetlighting, the construction in many places never seems to change from Los Angeles to Miami, from San Antonio to Sioux Falls.  OK – that is not quite true.  I was surprised to find out the street names are on blue signs in much of California as opposed to the green ones you find in other states.  The flip side I realised  after my first ever trip to the States, to Texas, where I learnt how much the states to do operate so much on their own, and resent the federal control that is seen as the dominant force to anyone outside of the States.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed many of my trips to the States and I have had the company of many Americans on my trips around the world.  I have no blanket loathing of a nation of 250 million people – that would be ridiculous.  Although, I have come across some examples of complete ignorance in my time.

When in Houston I went to Brazos Bend, one of the few natural areas in the hinterland of this huge metropolis.  The slow moving rivers twist and turn in willow lined creeks to their inevitable emergence in the Gulf of Mexico, and have become a haven for alligators.  I was walking around the reserve at Brazos Bend and approached a couple on a bridge over one of the side creeks.  They were looking down into the water and I saw they were staring at an alligator snoozing in the weeds.

“How do you know if they are male or female” the woman said.

“I’ve got no idea” I said.  She paused and stared at me

“Hey….. you’re not from round here , are ya?”

“No, I’m English”

The man chipped in “England; that’s up beyond New York isn’t it”

“No silly” said the woman  “England – that’s way north of Greenland”.

I had no way of helping them understand and left it – there are some places a geographer should not get too pedantic.  It turned out this couple were on vacation in Brazos Bend; they came from a small town about 50 miles away.  They had never been abroad, had no passports.  They had never been out of Texas.

I don’t judge them; I know some people find all the life and inspiration they need from their immediate environs and never see the need to travel.  But it did demonstrate a level of ignorance about the world outside that I found from some sectors of population here.


Bird’s Eye View of Wildfowl State – Scratching the surface

I’ve spent a life of travelling but I have limited experience of the USA.  The places so many Brits have on their bucket list in the USA keep on eluding me.  I have passed through JFK airport many times; I have even overnighted in the Jamaica district in Queens once while en route to Haiti.  But I have never set foot in the downtown New York City, never stepped onto Manhattan Island.  I have never been dropped into  Grand Canyon, marvelled at Yosemite, said hello to Yellowstone, not gambled in Las Vegas, had my picture taken outside the White House or made a pilgrimage to Gracelands.

I have driven across the Golden Gate Bridge.  I have seen the Hollywood Sign (albeit from a set of traffic lights in Los Angeles).  I have been to Cape Canaveral.  I did attend one Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  And I once saw the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Generally my trips to the US have been much more eclectic and surprisingly spread apart over twenty years or more.  It has usually been down to work or attending conferences.  Once I took a holiday from the UK to Houston, a couple of times I hopped over from BVI to take some time out to explore Florida and California.  My opinion of the USA started with me feeling there were a few honeypot amazing places but in between miles of tedium, sameness, and a basic lack of character that meant I was not in a hurry to explore more.

I have kept going back and over the years and although I have seen much that disappoints such as the miles of suburbia, strip malls, wide open flat fields with nothing going on, repetitive chain stores for food, accommodation, tyres, supermarkets, cars…..  I have seen more variety that I expected and have begun to understand the culture a little better.  The best way I think you can do it is stop thinking of the USA as one amorphous blob of a country and see how different so many of the states are.


The view from my hotel

Blown Away – Acting Suspiciously At Atlanta

And then it was more than a bit bumpy as the plane shuddered into the cross winds but as soon as we were aloft the pilot almost immediately turned the aircraft into the wind, we bounced against the clouds for a couple of minutes but then … it was an ordinary flight.  About to and a half hours flying over Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico before coming down to land at the hubbub of Atlanta’s enormous airport.  I always like coming into the big American airports where you can glance around and see another plane landing and maybe a couple taking off all at different angles.  But Atlanta is a nightmare to get around ; it does not matter which terminal block you come into you are all funnelled down to one huge immigration centre.  I had a couple of hours before the overnight to London, but still wanted to get through all the airport hassle, and wanted to ensure when I got to the BA check in desk that I was actually booked on this flight back home that night.  That was OK but this strange trip (four days in Cayman islands in total) had one final fling at me.  Because I was a late booking  I was seen as a problem for the Department of Homeland Security.  Apparently I was profiled along with terrorists who make late arrangements to try and hide their paper (or these days e-paper) trail.  A sticker was put on my boarding pass which in theory meant I was to be taken aside at the airport security gates for a fuller search.  But the queues of travellers at the security check were long and the officials wanted to process us quickly, so despite me flashing the boarding pass with the special sticker at them they waived me through.  I went and sat down at the gate way down the end of the terminal; already a crowd had formed and boarding was due to start in a few moments.  But I was then called to the desk; apparently Homeland Security had picked up that I had not been properly checked.  I asked if I needed to go all the way back to the gate (a long way in Atlanta), but they said no; a couple of staff were coming down and I would be taken to a “quiet area” to be discreetly searched.

Imagine the reaction of the other passengers when they saw me being escorted to one side of the gate by two enormous guys in full dark blue body armour; their guns slung round their waists.  The quiet area turned out to be at the top of the ramp to the plane.  Yes it was quiet when we arrived but as they brusquely (but not unkindly) dealt with me, boarding started and a steady trail of passengers filed by me and saw my hands against the wall being frisked, my shoes off, then hands on head, pockets emptied, one leg up, then the other.


Out of danger?  We land at Atlanta

Of course nothing was found and after all the curt statements by the staff while they frisked one of the guys said “Have a nice flight, sir” and I was allowed to join the queue and board.  I did get a few nervous looks from the people seated around me that night as we headed north over the eastern seaboard and back over the Atlantic to London.