Drones, Citizen Science, and El Niño Monitoring of California’s Coastline

On January 25, 2016, a state of emergency was declared in Pacifica, California, after king tides and storm surge pummeled the coastline. Many of the apartments in Pacifica are hanging off of soft sandstone cliffs and are in danger of falling off.  Photo taken January 26, 2016.

Eric Cheng

I’m writing about an exciting citizen science project that fits strongly into the “Drones Are Good” message—an idea many of us in the drone industry share as widely as possible in order to highlight the great things that drones can do for the world. The Nature Conservancy’s Phones and Drones project gives casual volunteers the opportunity to help gather data about the coastal impacts of big storm events, with the end goal of improving predictive models and planning responses that protect people and nature.

In order for the project to succeed, we need to get word out to drone enthusiasts who live along the California coastline. Whenever there is a big storm or tide event, drone operators can go fly the coastline, collecting aerial imaging data or creating autonomous maps using services like DroneDeploy, which can then be shared with The Nature Conservancy’s scientists.

The project’s webpage is http://nature.org/elnino

How your organization can help

If you want to help get this “Drones Are Good” message out to drone operators, here’s are some ways you can help:

  1. Download the press kit at https://db.tt/1sOpQis3 .
  2. Write an article or do a podcast about the initiative. The Nature Conservancy is available for interviews and statements (contact Lisa Park, TNC PR, at [email protected]).
  3. Share the project with your mailing lists / social media outlets (suggested copy and images are in the press kit).
  4. Print the flyer and put it in your outbound shipping boxes, or keep it at your retail locations (flyer PDF is in the press kit).

As always, thank you for your time! If you have questions, you can reply directly to me (I’m helping out with the project), or contact Lisa Park at [email protected].



The Nature Conservancy

Contact: Lisa Park, PR < [email protected]>

Project websitehttp://nature.org/elnino

Phones and Drones: Using Citizen Science to Monitor how El Niño Changes CA’s Coast 

About the project: 

El Nino is a major driver of coastal change in its own right, but it also may be a glimpse of the future; specifically, climate change is likely to cause more frequent coastal flooding and inundation, like what we may see with El Nino. Our object is to use citizen scientists to document how these types of extreme events change our coast and impact to ecosystems and people. The strong El Niño event occurring now off our coast will likely cause significant impacts to both natural ecosystems and human systems in California.  This El Niño is predicted to persist through the spring of 2016 and is setting up to be among the strongest on record. For California’s coastal habitats, we can expect strong storm surge, coastal flooding, and erosional events.

Top Level Messages: 

The conservation challenge 

California’s shoreline is changing and the pace of that change is speeding up.  Sea level rise and extreme storm events will dramatically alter, or even destroy natural habitats and human infrastructure we depend on. We have predictive models of how this may occur, but we need to monitor changes to our shoreline—both gradual and abrupt—as it happens if we are to protect people and nature into the future.

The opportunity

The developing El Nino presents a rare opportunity to document the impacts of big storm events; rare, because we know these storms are coming. This documentation will allow us to improve our predictive models, better understand the challenge presented by sea level rise, and plan responses that best protect people and nature. This can be done in partnership with the help of drone enthusiasts and citizen scientists – anyone with a phone can go to the beach and contribute a data point!

The approach

Citizens collecting information with modern technology is on the cutting edge of scientific approaches to vastly increase our understanding of nature and the threats it faces. TNC and partners will empower everyday beachgoers to gather information that is critically important to the future of California’s Coast. This information will be used to create spatial and temporal records of storm surge, flooding, and erosional events, and cross-reference them against The Conservancy’s modeled predictions.

TNC aims to protect valuable coastal habitats across CA and their ability to buffer our communities and provide irreplaceable habitat for wildlife. The science generated through this project can inform California’s response to the impacts of climate change to our coastline.  We expect to learn the vulnerability of different areas to sea level rise and flooding, and where investments in natural infrastructure and restoration can best protect people and natural habitats.

Quotes from Matt Merrifield, Chief technology officer, The Nature Conservancy in California:

  • We want to learn as much from this El Niño as possible. By working with residents, we can.
  • We want Californians to use their phones and drones to document how El Niño is changing our coast and impacting ecosystems and people.
  • If someone sees waves overtopping dunes, flooded roads and rivers, or landslides during this El Nino, take a photo with your phone and / or drone and send them to us. Detailed instructions can be found on our website: www.nature.org/elnino
  • This El Niño is going to affect all of our communities and this program is a way for people to get involved.
  • These photos will help scientists at The Nature Conservancy better understand and respond to this El Niño and help us prepare for future storms

Suggested Social Media Content

Sample Tweets

Sample Facebook / Mailing List Copy

The Nature Conservancy’s El Niño Monitoring Iniative

Use your drone to help monitor California’s coastline!

The Nature Conservancy is recruiting volunteers to help monitor how extreme weather events impact California’s coast. Use your smart phone or drone to take pictures or generate maps of higher than normal water levels, coastal landslides and erosional events, or damage caused by floods or landslides. Imagery submitted by volunteers is extremely helpful, and will be used to produce maps of inundation and erosion that will help coastal managers plan ahead to protect our coasts. To participate, visit: http://nature.org/elnino #elninoca

Photo: “Sample california aerial image.jpg” (Photo credit: Eric Cheng)

Eric Cheng

http://echeng.com | @echeng

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