News and analysis
February 08, 2016

Charity Enlists Citizen Photographers and Drone Users for Sea-Level Monitoring Project

The Nature Conservancy
Based on images from beachgoers and recreational drone users during intense weather, the Nature Conservancy hopes to predict what the coastline could look like in the future.
 As intense, El Niño-driven rains pound the California coast, the Nature Conservancy is asking beachgoers to take GPS-tagged photographs of high water levels, major coastal erosion, and property damage from flooding or landslides.

The goal? Create a window into the future.

El Niño is a periodic climate phenomenon that occurs when Pacific Ocean waters warm, leading to changing — and sometimes extreme — weather patterns. The researchers hope images crowdsourced through the El Niño Monitoring Initiative will provide evidence for their predictions of how coastal habitats will be transformed by climate change and rising oceans, while also raising awareness of the issue among average Californians.

The charity aims to protect and maintain 200,000 acres of natural coastal habitat in the state through the year 2100.

"We think we know what’s going to happen in the year 2100, but we don’t know for sure," says Sarah Newkirk, senior coastal project director for the Nature Conservancy in California. "Every single person who goes to the beach and sends us a picture provides an incredibly useful piece of data to help us achieve that goal."

The charity maintains a small office in Santa Cruz, where both Ms. Newkirk and Matt Merrifield, chief technology officer of the charity’s California chapter, work.

In October, the colleagues were discussing their modeling of the rising sea level, which has been ongoing for years but has never been validated with the kind of on-the-ground images being shared today.

People take photos of the California coast all the time. Mr. Merrifield believed the geolocation services on the average iPhone were good enough to capture detailed information as the coastline is inundated during the current El Niño. Every picture promised further information to support the group’s prediction of what the coastline will look like in the future.

Ms. Newkirk and Mr. Merrifield decided to combine their talents and networks.

She contacted people she knew with organizations that monitor the beaches and water quality. This included the California King Tides Project, run by the state, and a couple of nonprofits, including Thank You Ocean, which had already been encouraging people to take photos during extreme high-tide events.

He promoted the project at a conference of recreational drone users, who embraced it enthusiastically.

The charity added a landing page to its website with all of the information that an average beachgoer or drone operator would need and encouraged people to post the images on the photo-sharing site Flickr using the hashtag #elninoca.

Already, images are confirming that the researchers’ projections are not off-base.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects the El Niño to last through winter and into spring. As the weather improves, Ms. Newkirk expects this phase of the project to end. The researchers will analyze what they’ve collected and spread the word about what they found. From there, they’ll be able to help the state and local governments prioritize which communities and natural resources to protect.

Ultimately the photos will be used to contribute to open-source 3-D maps. When a viewer wants to see a projection of what a location will look like, the photo can provide a window into that landscape.

"There’s incredible power in leveraging citizen scientists to help us out with this," Ms. Newkirk said, "both because there are so many of them and because it gives us double duty of collecting data and raising awareness."

Send an email to Eden Stiffman.