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San Diego Researchers Recruit Public To Document El Niño

Citizen science’ project will help assess coastal erosion and wave damage

Photo by Susan Murphy

Julie Thomas, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, stands in front of a network of wave-monitoring buoys as she explains a citizen El Niño science project, Nov. 5, 2015.

During previous strong El Niños, San Diego County suffered major coastal erosion, and waves reached heights never seen before. This time around, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography are calling on the public to help document the potentially historic event.

During the powerful El Niño of 1983, waves off San Diego’s coast reached nearly 25 feet. The huge surf, combined with high tides, destroyed dozens of restaurants and homes.

As San Diego now braces for a potential repeat event, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are recruiting amateur scientists and the public to help monitor coastal erosion and shoreline damage.

How To Submit Photos


Twitter: @CDIPBuoys

Photo credit: UC Berkeley

Strong waves and high surf batter cliffs along the California coast during the El Niño of 1998.

“They are a wealth of information because most people do have smartphones these days and can help us out if they have any photos that are of interest along the shoreline during large wave events,” said Julie Thomas, executive director of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System and the Coastal Data Information Program.

Thomas is calling on beachgoers and people who work or live along the coast to take photos this winter.

“Of any extreme events, extreme wave action, destruction of structures along the shoreline,” Thomas said. “And by having photos that are geo-tagged, so they have the position, the latitude-longitude, and also time tag.”

She is particularly interested in photos taken repeatedly of the same location over time. The collection of photos and data will be added to Scripps record books and used as a predictor for the effects of future high-tide and large wave combinations, as well as sea-level rise.

“So we can quantify what exactly a 7-foot wave and a 4-foot tide might be,” Thomas said. “We can say, ‘At this particular corner of a restaurant, this was the wave impact.’”

The data could potentially help emergency officials, transportation managers and the military.

It also “lets the citizen know what the impact might be if there’s going to be mild flooding to extreme flooding,” she said.

Photo credit: USGS

Coastal erosion from a strong El Niño in 1998 destroyed dozens of homes and structures along the California coast.

Thomas monitors and assesses realtime data of wave heights and directions via a network of offshore buoys to create a three-day flood index.

“This allows us to take the waves and the tides and show over the three days what might be forecast as far as the conditions,” Thomas said.

Previous El Niños generated large wind waves as storms moved on shore, and elevated sea levels between 6 and 12 inches above normal.

“During high tides will definitely be the most vulnerable time when people should be watching out for any storm damage along the shoreline.”

Thomas is urging project participants to stay out of harm’s way when taking pictures. Photos can be submitted via email to

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