Meet the woman whose project uses drones to study El Nino’s impact on California

Earlier this week we told you about the Nature Conservancy’s Phones and Drones volunteer project. Now, meet one of the women behind the project.

As El Nino hits the West Coast, it’s a prime time for scientists to use the weather patterns as a crystal ball for future climate change. Tides are higher, and there are more storms. The Nature Conservancy’s Sarah Newkirk is spearheading a project that looks at the coast line using images from drones, shot by “citizen scientists” — essentially anyone with a drone.

For drone operators interested in volunteering with the project, visit this site.


Sarah Newkirk

Drone Girl: Why did this project come about?

SN: I direct the California Coastal Project at the Nature Conservancy of California, and our job is to  makes sure we still have natural shorelines, but we have a land development threat. Our communities are growing, but there is sea level rise, so coastal habitats are getting squeezed out of existence.

DG: So what’s your role?

SN: We’re working to help communities and decision makers make wise decisions about using natural resources rather than sea walls.  Sometimes that means restoring wetlands, getting infrastructure off the coast. It also means understanding how sea level rise and climate driven coastal change impact how we go about this. It’s a conservation problem in 4 dimensions — latitude, longigtue, altitude and time. It’s not about our coastline today, but tomorrow.

DG: What’s the project you are doing now with drones?

SN: El Nino is giving us an opportunity to look into a crystal ball and see how that change is going to happen. It gives us high tides, high swell conditions. It’s also giving us actual storms that are going to be more frequent and intense in the future as climate changes. It makes these less understood events like the event in Pacifica more understood. It empowers communities to make decisions about where they are protecting their infrastructure, and where are we better off just not having an apartment building on a cliff.

DG: Where do the drone users come in?

SN: We are asking anyone with a camera on their phone and the unique subset of volunteers with drones to document photos of the shoreline and submit them. Then our scientists take these images and cross reference them with future climate change models, scenarios and maps.

DroneDeploy Orthomosaic Example

Courtesy of Eric Cheng

DG: What’s beneficial about getting the drones involved?

SN:  The drones are amazing. They give us a bird’s eye view. We can cover so much more of the landscape with a single deployment than we can with a cell phone image.

DG: At what point did you realize you should include drones in the project, and not just cell phone images?

SN: Our CTO, Matt Merrifield,  is always thinking about ways to deploy new technology in pursuit of our conservation objective. He and I had been sitting around in the office one day looking at maps and I made the comment that none of our models are validated. We’re not going to know whether we are right. But we both recognized the best approximation we have is this El Nino event. Matt said this is a perfect opportunity to deploy not just phones and drones, but also citizen scientists.

Sample california aerial image

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. Courtesy of Eric Cheng

DG: What kind of participation have you gotten so far?

SN: The drone people are coming out in droves. Believe it or not, we may have more drone images than cell phone images. There is a sweet spot between the casualness of a photo on a beach and the sophistication of the drone user being very intentional about what they are doing.

DG: How can people get involved?

SN: Visit This kind of an opportunity happens really rarely, and it’s now that we have the opportunity to get so much information. And by empowering citizens to do this, we’re building a small army of citizen scientists.

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