Environment & Science

Scientists need your photographs of coastal damage from El Niño

A storm surge generates high surf and leads to flooding in Southern California coastal communities, including Seal Beach.
A storm surge generates high surf and leads to flooding in Southern California coastal communities, including Seal Beach.
Screen capture from NBC LA

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The developing El Niño in the Pacific is widely expected to bring above average rainfall to Southern California. It could also bring large waves that erode and damage coastlines.  

Researchers are hoping to study expected high surf conditions this winter to help determine the factors that lead to flooding. And they are asking members of the public to photograph damaged and eroded areas of the coastline.

That information will allow scientists to tie together locations of flooding with data tidal cycles and storm-driven wave heights.

“We know the wave heights very closely along our Southern California shoreline. The idea of getting the photos is that we can correlate, OK, so it’s a four-foot wave plus a four-foot tide — what does that mean to actual flooding to the coastal resident,” said Julie Thomas, executive director of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS).

Damage from El Niño storms in 1997-1998 caused an estimated $800 million (adjusted for inflation) statewide, according to a report from the California Coastal Commission. Coastal damages accounted for about a third of that.

Researchers hope contributions from citizen scientists will inform a better understanding of flooding impacts on shorelines and marine ecosystems and give a picture of consequences from possible sea level rise in the future.

It could also better equip planners and residents for predicting future coastal flooding. Researchers at SCCOOS currently monitor more than 35 possible flooding sites along the Southern California coast. At one of the sites, Cardiff in San Diego County, they have graphed tide and wave effects, marking the height at which flooding occurs.

“When the waves and the tide reach that threshold, we know that it overtops at the parking lot at Cardiff,” Thomas said.

Chart of Cardiff's Potential Flooding Index
Caption: A screenshot of a chart on the SCCOOS web site shows the point at which flooding will occur at Cardiff in San Diego County. (Credit: SCOOS)

Thomas said further data collection could allow researchers to establish thresholds for the remaining sites. It would also give stakeholders advance notice of locations that could be flooded.

“If someone sees a combination of floods and tide, three days from now reaching that orange or red line, then they know that they need to prepare for flooding at that site,” Thomas said.

Photographs can be sent via email to stormphoto@sccoos.org.