Scientists appeal to drone owners for help in predicting sea level rise

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Using drones for aerial photography has been a source of controversy for several years now. But amid increasing concerns over privacy and safety, some conservation scientists are hoping drone owners will help them to document sea level rise.

With an expected increase in storm activity in the Pacific Ocean this winter, scientists believe they are getting a glimpse of the impacts of climate change on coastlines.

"This winter, we’re expecting a really strong El Niño and we think that’s going to give us a really good indication of what the future might look like in California, particularly as it relates to sea level rise," said Matt Merrifield, chief technology officer for the Nature Conservancy in California. 

To get more intel to back up these claims, the Nature Conservancy is asking people to share pictures of impacts from higher water levels, such as flooding, erosion and damage. Images taken by smart phones and drones are helpful because they include time and location data, information scientists can use to build a more accurate map of high water conditions.

Merrifield said drones are important tools because they can be deployed immediately after a storm.

“Drones are great because unlike satellite images or even aerial photography from a plane, you can get out there right away," Merrifield said. "We know that these events are happening really quickly and so we can mobilize people really quickly."

Merrifield wants to use maps built through crowdsourced data to inform the Nature Conservancy's models for predicting sea level rise.

“That will help us determine how good of a job those sea level rise models do [in] representing flooding. And that analysis will give us a really good idea of where to do our conservation work, where would it make sense to restore wetland [and] to minimize flood risk,” Merrifield said.

Willing recruits

Drone enthusiasts Brennon Edwards and Dominic Bendijo, who flew their drones on a beach in Malibu on Friday, are happy to share their pictures with the Nature Conservancy.

Brennon Edwards and Dominic Bendijo fly their drones over Sequit Point in Malibu.
Brennon Edwards and Dominic Bendijo fly their drones over Sequit Point in Malibu. Jed Kim

Edwards uses drones to capture footage for his production company, and is admittedly a bit of a science nerd: “My original career choice was marine biologist so I always had an affinity for science... To be able to combine my loves, why not? And it’s helping people.” 

He watched his drone fly about 160 feet up in the air on a pre-programmed route, tracing a grid across a section of the beach. A DroneDeploy app then stitched the images the drone captured into a high-resolution map.

Brennon Edwards watches his drone fly a pre-programmed route as it photographs the Malibu coastline. The pictures will help scientists predict future ocean levels.
Brennon Edwards watches his drone fly a pre-programmed route as it photographs the Malibu coastline. The pictures will help scientists predict future ocean levels. Jed Kim

This was only the second time flying the drone with the DroneDeploy program. Edwards said it was nerve-wracking not to have much control over his machine but also exciting to figure out a new way to use his drone.

"It’s fun because it’s like a science experiment where we get to learn how to do new stuff with our drone and help out the Nature Conservatory,” Edwards said.

See the aerial drone footage that Edwards and Bendijo shot here:

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