Cheyenne Bottoms is the premier wetland of Kansas; it consists of marshes, meadows, mud flats, channels, and pools within an oval-shaped closed depression. Cheyenne Bottoms has suffered a series of droughts and floods during the past century. During extended droughts, the bottoms may dry up completely. Conversely flooding may fill much of the basin with shallow, ephemeral lakes. Since 2002, we have conducted annual surveys during the growing season using various forms of remote sensing and ground observations. In particular, we have utilized low-height kite and blimp aerial photography to document changing conditions in The Nature Conservancy (TNC) marsh-complex environments.
During the early twenty-first century, a series of drought-flood cycles took place; dry intervals culminated in late 2006 and early 2013 and were followed soon after by major floods. Wet intervals are characterized by abundant surface water, influx of sediment and nutrients, numerous migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, expansion of emergent wetland vegetation, and abundant aquatic wildlife. During drought phases, surface water disappears, soil moisture declines, wetland vegetation dies or becomes dormant, migrating birds bypass the vicinity, and bare mud flats are subjected to wind erosion. The transformation from drought to flood conditions may take place quite abruptly. Wetland vegetation responds rapidly, invertebrate wildlife begins to recover quickly, and migrating shorebirds and waterfowl return. This scenario suggests a dynamic environment that may exhibit large short-term variations, but which is resilient and has long-term stability.