Ooh, Aah: Take in Yosemite Views by Computer


Photo by the Associated Press

Tracie Cone, The Associated Press, May 15, 2012

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Just in time for spring snowmelt: a webcam pointed at one of Yosemite National Park's main attractions, the soaring 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls.

The HD camera went live on North America's tallest fall Monday, allowing anyone with computer access to watch in stunning detail as shadows race across the towering granite monolith over which Yosemite Creek crashes in a series of plunges and cascades. It's updated every 30 seconds through a high-speed DSL connection.

To those for whom the park's breathtaking scenery revives the soul, getting a fix of spiritual uplift just got a little easier. For people who've never been to Yosemite, perhaps seeing one of the park's main attractions in real time will prove too enticing to resist.

"In a lot of ways I equate it to all of the beautiful picture books that we've had on our coffee tables, or the art from the 1870s that made Yosemite exciting to people around the world when they saw it for the first time," said Michael Tollefson, president of the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy, which placed the camera there. "This is a great way to communicate in today's media what the park is and to get people excited immediately, for better or worse."

It's the fourth webcam the nonprofit has set up — the other three are pointed toward the park icons Half Dome, Yosemite's most recognizable granite feature, and El Capitan, the 3,000-foot sheer-faced monolith popular with climbers. It joins a smattering of others across the nation, including one at Yellowstone's renowned geyser Old Faithful, as technology, in varying degrees of clarity, increasingly connects America's natural wonders with fans around the world.

Unlike the new 24/7 camera at Yosemite Falls, most of the webcams that exist in national parks are there for purposes other than entertaining and enticing. Some pull double duty monitoring air quality, others are there for weather updates or road conditions. Most are low resolution and so remotely located that they are updated infrequently through dial-up connections.

Often they are attached to research projects. When they break down, it can take days or weeks to get them fixed.

At Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a webcam shows traffic on the boat launch ramp at Bullfrog, Utah (http://1.usa.gov/J4P8L5). One webcam at Sequoia Kings Canyon national park provides a view of a single oak tree so students can monitor its life cycle (http://1.usa.gov/KmOPLH). At Little Big Horn National Monument, a camera offers a distant, grainy view of the military cemetery (http://1.usa.gov/JBGXnd).

One of the most popular webcams in a national park, said NPS spokeswoman Kathy Kupper, has been one showing sled dog puppies at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska (http://1.usa.gov/nVhmKQ). While the NPS doesn't have an exhaustive list of cameras in parks, the ones it knows about are on the park website at nps.gov (http://1.usa.gov/KmVFQb).

The Conservancy's cameras in Yosemite National Park are positioned for dramatic impact: the movement of the sun on the falls and formation of ice in the winter, the gathering of summer rain clouds atop Half Dome, rock climbers scaling El Capitan. (http://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/webcams)

The new camera and one in the Ahwahnee Meadow pointed at Half Dome are HD optimized for computer viewing at 1280x720 pixels resolution, or 720p. The falls camera is capable of 1280x1024 pixels. Eventually the conservancy would like to place webcams in the old growth redwood forest at Mariposa Grove, and in the sub-alpine Tuloumne Meadows at 8,600 feet.

The Yosemite Falls camera will show its ebb and flow as snowmelt slows to a trickle by late summer. The Conservancy, which funds many projects in the parks, has someone to keep the cameras up and running, even in the dead of winter.

"Part of our mission is to excite people about the park and educate them so they can become committed to protecting and preserving it," Tollefson said. "One way is to offer the opportunity to keep the parks live for them on their computers."

While the parks service and the conservancy make every effort to conceal the cameras and place them on structures that already exist, it's a game for some visitors to find them. One Sacramento TV weather forecaster broadcast from the sightline of a Yosemite webcam and waved at viewers watching simultaneously by computer. At another camera, someone built a snowman in the foreground.

"People figure it out and have fun with it," Tollefson said.

Recent upgrades in DSL Internet connectivity at the Yosemite Lodge, where the new camera is affixed, made the quick streaming of a high definition camera possible.

The eventual goal, said Tollefson, is to upgrade to live video streaming at all of the Yosemite cameras that already attract 400,000 viewers a year.