Drones are more than just toys with cameras that people are into nowadays. California residents have started using them to track the effects of El Niño, providing experts with a first-hand look at the changes coasts are undergoing as a result of the El Niño phenomenon.

Nature Conservancy, an American charitable environmental organization based in Virginia, has asked the participation of citizens to capture photos of coastal erosion and flooding brought by the irregular climate and weather pattern. It is characterized by a complex series of climate changes that causes California to have a very wet winter.

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be used to take high-resolution 3D photos, which are useful in helping scientists identify the extent of coastal flooding. Scientists use these photos to tell if their predictive models are accurate.

"We use these projected models and they don't quite look right, but we're lacking any empirical evidence," Matt Merrifield, the organization's chief technology officer, said. In a way, the project determines if the models are true.

California faces climate change problems that add to the possibility that many of its beaches could disappear. In a study conducted by the Pacific Institute in 2009, the researchers stated that about 500,000 people and about $100 billion worth of properties such as schools, roadways and power plants are at risk of devastation as sea levels continue to rise every year.

"When you get [a] big winter storm surge like they want to document, you tend to lose a lot of beach," William Patzert, a climatologist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. He added that the project looks like a documentary on what the future holds and will show how beaches will look like in a century.

Organizers of the project have not given specific instructions to participants, but they might ask for specific requests. If the users can send photos of about 10 to 15 percent of the coastlines, the project can be dubbed a success. In the meantime, they partnered with a start-up company, DroneDeploy, which will issue a free app to participating drone owners across California.

Photo: Alfred Grupstra | Flickr

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