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Drones and smartphones are turning California residents into citizen scientists

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Rick Stella/Digital Trends

We’ve been crowd-sourcing the public for everything from news to the newest inventions, and now, the people are adopting a new de facto title — climate change scientists. Armed with little more than their smartphones and their selfie techniques, California residents are taking to their shorelines and providing experts with a firsthand look at the evolution of the coast as a result of El Niño. By documenting both the flooding and the erosion that occurs over time, everyday individuals can help researchers in their quest to better understand ocean-atmosphere interactions, and make good use of their drones and cell phones to boot.

That’s right, even unmanned flying devices can be used in this endeavor, finally giving tech enthusiasts a sanctioned use for their favorite airborne toys. The hope, scientists with the Nature Conservancy say, is to use these crowd-sourced and geo-tagged images to provide a more complete and real-time image of California’s coastal landscape, which in turn could be used to predict future changes.

Drones are actually particularly useful for this purpose because they can provide high-resolution and three-dimensional images, which may help scientists test their current models and theories about El Niño and other weather patterns. “We use these projected models and they don’t quite look right, but we’re lacking any empirical evidence,” Matt Merrifield, the Nature Conservancy’s chief technology officer, told the Associated Press. “This is essentially a way of ‘ground truthing’ those models.”

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California residents have been tapped for participation because they have a considerable amount of skin in the game. Many of the state’s beaches are at risk of disappearing altogether, and a 2009 Pacific Institute study suggested that around 500,000 people, as well as $100 billion in schools, power plants, and roadways, are at risk of destruction if sea levels continue to rise. And while the public’s pictures cannot support predictions with 100-percent accuracy, they’ll certainly aid in furthering our understanding of natural phenomena.

Some drone owners are excited by this new, very practical application of their often taboo devices. “It’s a really exciting application. It’s not just something to take a selfie with,” said aerospace engineer and drone owner Trent Lukaczyk. So if you’re out in California and wondering what else to snap a photo of, consider the coast, and consider our collective future.