Rising Sea Level and Scientists: Empowering the Local Community through Citizen Science

Written by on January 27, 2016 in Other News

By Astrid Hsu

This season, global warming and El Niño are taking the world by storm—at least in Southern California. Melting glaciers and warmer temperatures have caused the seas to expand, contributing to sea level rise. Coupled with the recent and predicted storms, the local beaches are being heavily battered. The result? Flooding, erosion, and cliff fails.

To help keep tabs on these natural hazards, researchers from Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO), Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS), and California Sea Grant create models to see which regions are most at-risk. This includes identifying which homes will flood, which landmarks will collapse, and how the coast will change including erosion, accretion of sediment and damage to coastal infrastructure. This season we have quite the treat, as the presence of a strong El Nino is essentially a sneak peak at what future sea levels will have in store for us.

However, collecting data isn’t the easiest task—it’s hard to be everywhere at all times to record data, especially when you have your life to balance as well. That’s why these organizations have teamed up with USC California Sea Grant to create the Urban Tides Community Science Initiative. This is a community science program that asks the public community for help to collect data through taking pictures. It’s simple: anytime you are at the beach, you can snap a picture (see guidelines) and upload it through this portal. Available both as an iPhone app and on the computer (Android app coming soon), photos allow researchers to check the accuracy of their models—is it actually flooding where the model said it was? How about how the land changed? These adjustments are crucial because they provide higher resolution and higher accuracy of a prediction for future tidal events.

Photo of Scripps Pier on the Beach Walk. Photo credit Astrid Hsu.

Photo of Scripps Pier on the Beach Walk. Photo credit Astrid Hsu.

To further engage the community, Beach Walks are held to teach the community the in-depth science behind the pictures, train them in how to use the app, and directly interact with participants.

I recently participated in the January 20th Beach Walk at La Jolla Shores, CA. This walk occurred during the extreme tides also known as the king tides: the highest of the high and the lowest of the low. Waking up at 6 AM, meeting at the beach at 7…the struggle was real. But it was also incredibly rewarding. Not only did I get to meet various members of the community, but I learned directly from the experts. Did you know that the city hires bulldozers to move sand around as an adaptation method? How about the fact that the recent rain and waves were so great, that the parking lot of the beach was completely flooded? And tides—they’re influenced by astronomical factors (sun and moon). But we know these systems so well, that 10 years ago, experts could tell you that king tides would be on these days. Wow.

The walk traced from La Jolla Shores to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and there a short lecture was held. We heard how the photos contributed to the research from Dr. Sarah Giddings (SIO) and received training on leading these walks from Linda Chilton (USCSG). Not only did it present the opportunity to ask questions about the complex science (without the distraction of the waves!), but Urban Tides gave the resources to share this experience with others and created a sense of community.

Dr. Sarah Giddings explaining how the photos help the science. Photo credit Astrid Hsu.

Dr. Sarah Giddings explaining how the photos help the science. Photo credit Astrid Hsu.

Citizen Science programs are two-way streets: the research depends on the community for data and the community receives education and warnings about natural hazards, a relationship critical to protecting the local region. Besides, who wouldn’t want to take walk on the beach and watch the waves?

Astrid is a current Master’s student at Scripps Institute of Oceanography focusing on marine biodiversity and conservation.

Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

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