Monitoring coastline erosion risk

There’s no better picture of the Australian summer than people flocking to the beach to cool off. Aside from getting us through 40-degree heatwaves, beaches play an important role in buffering storms and protecting the land from the sea. 

However, they’re also at risk of severe erosion, with previous reports projecting that around 50% of the world’s beaches could be lost by the end of the century.

Erosion is a natural process, occurring as result of the coast adjusting to waves and tides. However, changes in the intensity and frequency of storm surges, sea-level rise and changing weather and wave patterns can lead to changes in coastlines, some permanent.

Understanding these changes is a difficult task for coastal managers. Methods for measuring beaches takes significant time and resources. However, as the saying goes, many hands make light work, and that’s the exact approach the Victorian Coastal Monitoring Program is taking.

In what team member David Kennedy from the University of Melbourne calls a “true collaboration between community, university (University of Melbourne and Deakin University), industry (Propellor Aerobotics) and government (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning)”, citizen scientists are being trained to use drones to monitor Victoria’s coastlines.

The program aims to understand current and future beach erosion hazards, and how that affects coastal management practices. The data from the citizen science project is combined with modelling and climate change evidence to predict the future state of the coast.

The program recruits more than 150 citizen scientists from across the state, with participants ranging in age from primary school students to retirees. They’re trained to fly drones to monitor sites every six weeks from Portland to Seaspray. Those who can’t fly a drone (sorry under 16s!) help by placing and collecting ground control points used for 3D modelling.

Portphilipbay 1
A drone and the ground control point used by the citizen
scientists. Credit: David Kennedy

“Their local knowledge and connection to ‘their beach’ provides knowledge which is not possible for the visiting researcher to observe,” Kennedy explains.

So far the project data, which is available online, has recorded seasonal changes on beaches, the movement of sand and the development of a predictive model of beach dynamics. The data also includes changes in the volume, height and extent of sediment and other features such as dune vegetation.

“The data has been used by the volunteers themselves to better understand the coastal environments,” explains PhD student Nicolas Pucino from Deakin University.

“Consultants have modelled coastal hazards and long-term evolution and government agencies have been able to quantify erosion and sedimentation to better manage sand nourishment.”

And, while the project is making real changes in the understanding of Victoria’s coastlines, it has also been recognised for its innovative approach, taking out the Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science just last week.

“The win is such an honour. We’ve been really speechless with the success it has achieved in coastal management and research; the Eureka’s recognition is fantastic,” Kennedy says. “There’s so much potential when you combine the latest technology and research with passionate local communities.”

Next, the team is looking at a collaboration with traditional landowners to combine the data-collecting techniques of the program with the management of their cultural assets. They also plan to expand the program beyond Victoria and into the rest of Australia.

For now, the project is continually running training for new volunteers. For more information or to express interest in getting involved, check out the project’s social media, or contact the project’s flight operations manager, Blake Allan.

“Science aside, it builds a sense of connection between scientists, government and community that really makes our job easier and more enjoyable,” says Pucino.

“In a nutshell: citizen science is awesome!”

We’re interested to hear about citizen science projects. If you know of, or participate in one, let us know by tagging us @cosmosmagazine on Twitter or by emailing us at [email protected]

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