Phones and Drones Turn Public into Coastal Researchers

A new program launched by The Nature Conservancy and DroneDeploy will crowdsource El Niño research in California.

by / January 28, 2016
Vehicles pass Point Mugu in California's Ventura County along Pacific Coast Highway. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The answer to climate change is in your pocket. Most people think they can't do anything about the damaging effects of climate change like flooding and erosion, but a program launched last December by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) called Phones and Drones aims to crowdsource research of El Niño's impact on the California coastline and engender a spirit of ownership in the people who live and visit the iconic 840-mile stretch where the Pacific Ocean meets the land.

The group is encouraging anyone who visits the California coast to share geo-tagged photos of the beaches that they can use to validate predictive models of coastal erosion and stimulate public conversation about environmental issues. Through a partnership with DroneDeploy, the group is also enlisting drone hobbyists, who can share imagery and data that will be used to generate 3D models that researchers will use to learn about short- and long-term patterns of this winter's warm weather system.

So far, people have shared dozens of images via email, on Twitter using #elninoca and on Flickr, said Sarah Newkirk, senior coastal project director at TNC, and they expect participation to increase in the coming months.

"I think sometimes getting people involved with the thinking ahead, the adaption to climate change, empowers them and gets them aligned with the kind of thinking we wanted to promote," Newkirk said. "People are out there every day with these incredibly powerful devices just in their pockets and they're going to the beach all the time and there's tremendous power in having the coverage of the entire beach-going population of the state of California just out there collecting what turns out to be incredibly precise and high-resolution data. ... So why not tap into that power?"

Newkirk said she has a high degree of confidence in their predictive models and expects the imagery and data they receive from people will validate, not discredit, those models. Short-term events, like a recent bluff collapse in Pacifica, Calif., caused by El Niño that led to the evacuation of one apartment building, are less understood, however.

"Those are things we haven't really modeled," Newkirk said, adding that she saw a lot of drone hobbyists scanning the area after the event hit the news. "I expect to learn a lot from witnessing those episodic events happening in real time."

In addition to phones and drones, TNC is also using a chain of fixed cameras along the coastline to create time-lapse series of images at critical locations.

The images and data are to be compiled and curated for display on this summer, Newkirk said. The images will be cross-referenced to the organization's sea-level rise and flood prediction models, and remain online as part of a long-term effort to protect the California coastline and mitigate the effects of rising sea levels using research and increased civic participation.

The sea level is projected to rise 3.3 to 4.6 feet by the year 2100, according to a 2009 Pacific Institute study, which would cause an estimated $100 billion in damages to critical infrastructure that includes 140 schools, 34 police and fire stations, 55 healthcare facilities, 30 power plants, 28 water treatment plants, 330 hazardous waste sites, 3,500 miles of roads, and the San Francisco and Oakland airports. About half a million people would also be put at risk by the flooding, particularly people living in San Mateo and Orange Counties, and particularly low-income people. The nonprofit's goal is to maintain 200,000 acres of natural coastal habitat through the year 2100 and ensure that the short-term damage caused by seasonal weather patterns doesn't turn into the state's long-term reality.

"In order to do that, we have to be working to combat the oblique threats of sea level rise of the ocean coming toward the land and the development pressures coming toward the ocean," Newkirk said. "We refer to this as 'the big squeeze' that has the potential of squeezing out our last remaining natural shoreline. This is a piece of a larger effort to document and predict exactly where we need to be prioritizing our efforts to ensure the continued existence of the natural shorelines that we have, while simultaneously calling attention to the ability of those natural coastlines to provide protection to human communities."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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