Citizen Science

Phones & Drones Monitor El Niño Impacts for a Picture of the Future

January 13, 2016

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Beacon's Beach, Leucadia. Photo © Matt Merrifield/Flickr

What Is the El Niño Monitoring Initiative?

Did you know that your smart phones and drones could take pictures of the future?

Seriously. By taking pictures of the California coast during this year’s El Niño, you can capture a glimpse of what the future will be like as sea level rises and severe weather events driven by El Niño become more frequent in the area.

“We are pushing the boundaries of modeling sea level rise and storms by combining information on sea level rise with river floods, and looking at how coastal habitats like wetlands will change. The models are good and the results of different models mostly agree with one another, but they would benefit from ground-truthing,” says Sarah Newkirk, Senior Coastal Project Director for the Nature Conservancy in California. “El Niño is a great opportunity to validate the models. It’s like looking through a crystal ball into a future of higher water levels and more frequent and severe storm events.”

Your geo-tagged images will contribute to a map of the shoreline as it looks under El Niño conditions; they will provide real, on the ground data that can be used to test the accuracy of the models.

Anyone with a smart phone or drone can participate in the El Niño Monitoring Initiative. Your device will do the hard work of capturing the time, date, and location for you (just make sure that you have the location services enabled when you take the pictures). 

Why Is the El Niño Monitoring Initiative Important?

Climate change and the accompanying sea level rise are changing California’s shoreline (and shorelines around the world) with impacts for coastal communities and coastal habitats.

UAV imagery of king tide event at Twin Lakes Beach, Santa Cruz, California. Photo © Matt Merrifield
UAV imagery of king tide event at Twin Lakes Beach, Santa Cruz, California. Photo © Matt Merrifield

Monitoring both gradual and episodic changes to the shoreline as they happen helps provide real-world evidence to support models that predict impacts of sea-level rise. The more accurate these models are, the better communities can plan to protect people and nature into the future.

Citizen scientists have the potential to capture far more images and at a more local scale than researchers could obtain on their own or through satellite data alone.

“It’s incredible! You can take a picture and your phone automatically captures time, date, and a precise location. Geolocation features on phones are so good that you can map to within a meter or two of where you are,” Newkirk explains. “We’ll be able to tell from time and date stamps on the pictures where they fall within the tidal cycle.”

The project provides a great opportunity for people to get interested in — and educated about — sea  level rise.

Beacon's Beach, Leucadia. Photo © Matt Merrifield/Flickr
Beacon’s Beach, Leucadia. Photo © Matt Merrifield/Flickr

“People often ask me what they can do about sea level rise,” Newkirk says. “The best thing is to be aware and plan. Expect the expected. We know El Niño is going to happen — just like we know sea level rise is happening. Participate in the monitoring and use the maps to prepare not only yourself and your property, but also your community for these changes.”

You can also help out by spreading the word to friends and neighbors. Share your El Niño pictures with them and explain why you were out on the beach in the winter taking pictures of the coast. Explain why it matters to you.

How Can You Get Involved? 

Now is the best time to get started, so head out to the beach and take some pictures!

The El Niño event has already begun, but the worst is yet to come. NOAA and NASA predict that it will last through winter and into spring.

If you can safely do so, take pictures at high tide or after flooding events to show the greatest level of inundation.

UAV imagery of king tide event at Twin Lakes Beach, Santa Cruz, California. Photo © Matt Merrifield
UAV imagery of king tide event at Twin Lakes Beach, Santa Cruz, California. Photo © Matt Merrifield

“Be smart and safe — don’t go out in storms or when extreme wave events are happening,” Newkirk cautions. If you take a drone out for the project, be aware of any laws governing air space in the area and don’t harass wildlife.

For more information on the best place to stand while taking a picture and what to capture, see the instructions and video on the El Niño Monitoring Initiative site.

Once you have images, share them on Flickr with the hashtag #elninoca.

Get out to the beach now! Have fun — enjoy the beauty of the coast as well as the birds and wildlife wintering there. You will capture some incredible pictures and come back with a story of the future.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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