From the Field: Empowering the Community through Citizen Science


This season, global warming and El Niño are taking Southern California by storm. Melting glaciers and warmer ocean temperatures have caused the seas to expand, contributing to sea-level rise, which is expected to accelerate in the coming years. Current El Niño conditions lead to increased sea level along the California coastline due to warm water and atmospheric pressure effects. Coupled with recent storms, higher seas are battering local beaches. Strong wave action erodes beaches and weakens cliffs, and high rainfall leads to increased runoff rushing towards the coast. The result? Flooding, erosion, and cliff failures.

To help keep tabs on these natural hazards, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS), US Geological Survey, and others collect data and create models to see which regions are most at risk. This includes identifying which regions might flood and how the coast will change through erosion, accretion of sediment, and damage to coastal infrastructure. This season is especially interesting to researchers, as the presence of a strong El Niño is essentially a sneak peak at what rising sea level will have in store for us.

However, gathering coastal data isn't the easiest task. It's hard to be all along the coast at all times to capture data! That's why these organizations have teamed up with USC California Sea Grant to create the Urban Tides Community Science Initiative. This is a citizen science program that asks the public to help collect data by 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 (Android app coming very shortly) and on the computer, photos allow researchers to check the accuracy of their models and make crucial adjustments, providing better predictions for future high water level events. It also enables researchers to gather qualitative and quantitative data: certain photos can reveal the amount of sand being moved, thereby showing the amount of erosion or accretion that's taking place.

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

I recently participated in the Jan. 20 Beach Walk at La Jolla Shores in San Diego. 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 a.m., meeting at the beach at 7…not ideal. But we don’t control the tides, and the experience was 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 at Kellogg Park was completely flooded? These tidal systems are so well known, that 10 years ago, experts could pinpoint these “king tide” days. But with storms we only get a short notice!

The walk began at La Jolla Shores and continued on to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where a short lecture was held. We learned about the science from Sarah Giddings, an oceanographer at Scripps, tools and instrumentation from Jennifer McWhorter of SCCOOS, and received training on leading these walks from Linda Chilton of USC Sea Grant.

As a Scripps student, I also have the unique opportunity to evaluate this Citizen Science Initiative, working with Giddings to analyze the efficacy of the program and how we can make the experience better for the community and researchers involved. This is done primarily through surveys, asking participants what they gain from the program and why they chose to participate in the event. This will provide insight to increase participation in other groups or streamlining the experience for those who are already taking part. By assessing prior knowledge and checking to see what individuals feel they gained can help evaluate whether beach walks are worthwhile. Additionally, it will provide feedback on how to improve Beach Walks and reveal an understanding of the individuals that attend these programs.

Citizen Science programs are two-way streets: the research benefits from the community and the community gains from the science. The Urban Tides Initiative aims to do exactly that, but are we actually succeeding? Stay tuned for our results!

Astrid Hsu is in her final year as a Master of Advanced Studies student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.








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