La Jollans may help chart sea level rise via phone app


Do you frequently walk the beach? Do you own a cell phone or a camera? Would you like to contribute to the study of coastal erosion and sea level rise?

If your answer to these three questions is yes, Urban Tides has the perfect project for you!

Urban Tides is a program sponsored by University of Southern California Sea Grant that connects citizens and scientists to document the impact of sea level rise in urban communities. Since the program started in 2015, the database has received more than 300 updates from locations ranging from Point Conception to the U.S. Mexico border.

Sara Giddings, who is one of the scientists involved with the program, studies estuaries and coastal oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). She works with in situ measurements. “For me it is incredibly beneficial to also have photographs to document changes that are being observed near the estuary mouth,” she said.

Participants send their pictures of beaches, cliffs or estuaries through a free phone app or a computer program that can be downloaded from the website Then, scientists from several fields use them in their research.

“We are using these images as a window into the future,” Giddings said. She explained that the program was ramped up during El Niño because the conditions that it causes are comparable to what scientists expect sea level rise to be. “El Niño conditions lead to a background rise in sea level, and that rise is accompanied by more extreme events, so we have very large waves, and it also happens during the winter when we have our largest astronomical tide,” she said.

During the winter, pictures of flooding of coastal infrastructure, cliff erosion or flooding estuaries are of great value to scientists. However, they are as interested in the summer season that brings the sand back to beaches. “We want to see how much comes back, and how quickly it’s coming back, so that we get a sense of how the response varies after such a large event like this winter’s El Niño … so that we can get that comparison point,” Giddings said.

For Giddings, the most valuable pictures are those that capture the same place in different points in time. “If somebody takes a daily or weekly walk on the beach, and they record a photograph from the same location multiple times throughout the year where they are looking in the same direction and trying to get the same point of view over and over again, this allows us to build the timeline,” Giddings explained.

The photo guidelines available on the Urban Tides website provide a few tips on how to take helpful pictures: “Find the highest wet water line in the sand. Then, take two steps or strides landward from the water line. Take the photo facing parallel to the shoreline. Include some sort of structure or feature in your picture, such as a pier, jetty, breakwater or dock, for perspective. This will help scientists better identify the water line. Ideally, you’ll want your picture to catch the wave as it reaches the water line again.”

Giddings said that for many people, the phone app could be easier. “If you are walking down the beach and you see something of particular interest, you can bring up the app on your phone and take a picture right then and there on the spot, and it will record your location and the time stamp, and you can add a couple of notes and it’s done! You have recorded your first entry!”

Pictures from all locations along the San Diego coast are encouraged, however, scientists defined the best spots to shoot in La Jolla. “Photographs from regions that are particularly at risk for erosion and flooding are important. We have had a good number of pictures taken from La Jolla Shores, which has seen a lot of changes through the winter. My particular interest is in the estuary, I’ve been encouraging people to take pictures at the estuary, for example Los Peñasquitos Lagoon which sits at the border of San Diego and Del Mar at Torrey Pines State Beach. That location is a good one. And there’s a scientist at Scripps who’s studying cliff erosion, so he is really interested in folks who are capturing some of the cliffs near Torrey Pines.”

Giddings highlighted the importance of this program in the long-term. “Next year is projected to be switching to La Niña conditions, so we would expect less extreme weather level events, but that’s really valuable for us to have a comparison images. This is something we would like to get going longterm,” she said. For now, the project doesn’t have a time tag on it.

— The Urban Tides program also organizes beach talks with scientists where citizens can learn about sea level rise and coastal erosion and receive training on how to take pictures for Urban Tides. To schedule a beach talk or request information, contact Linda Chilton at or (213) 740-1965. On the Web: