How citizen scientists have helped map changes to New Hampshire’s beaches

Volunteers Molly Dennett, Alfred Ackerman, and Ellen Saas perform a beach profile.

Volunteers Molly Dennett, Alfred Ackerman, and Ellen Saas perform a beach profile. WELLS COSTELLO—Coastal Research Volunteers

By CLAIRE SULLIVAN

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 07-10-2024 10:08 AM

For six years, citizen scientists have helped track New Hampshire’s changing coastline through seasons and storms.

That data has helped scientists better understand the unique response of each beach to weather events: Some bounce back quickly, while others rebound slowly. As coastal risks mount, with climate change raising waters and intensifying storms, the shoreline mapping helps scientists detect the most vulnerable areas.

In other words: “Where are the beaches that need the most help to prevent the worst impacts of storms?” said Larry Ward, one of the principal investigators of the University of New Hampshire’s Volunteer Beach Profile Monitoring Program. 

Thirty-nine regular volunteers and five substitutes, who fill in periodically, help answer that question and others, performing beach profiles at 15 stations on a mostly monthly basis. Those volunteers, ranging from high schoolers to retirees, undergo “a very stringent training program” with UNH scientists, Ward said.

The scientists – professionals and volunteers – have together mapped stories of recovery with data. And their findings have reinforced the fact that just as each beach is different, so is its comeback from a storm.

After three storms in a two-week period in March 2018, New Hampshire’s coastal beaches were devastated, Ward said. Some beaches have lower elevations than others, “so, when a storm does come, those low-lying beaches get hit harder,” he said.

Hampton Beach was “heavily eroded,” Ward said, “but bounced back relatively fast.” Meanwhile, he said, “North Beach and North Hampton Beach still have changed from it.” They have low elevations that haven’t fully rebounded since that series of hits more than six years ago. Wallis Sands Beach in Rye lies somewhere in between in terms of recovery.

Those findings and others have been detailed in reports emanating from the program. And they come from a citizen approach to science. Alyson Eberhardt, the other principal investigator of the program, focuses on the volunteer aspect of it, her colleague said.

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“We couldn’t possibly do this study without a large set of volunteers helping us,” Ward said.

Volunteers aren’t just collecting data; they’re also going back home and talking about their work with the people around them. That engagement cultivates “a partnership between the scientists and the managers and the people that live (on) and use the beach,” Ward said.

Becoming a citizen scientist

Volunteers typically have “ownership” over a beach, meaning they are returning to collect data at the same station month after month, Ward said, typically working in a group of three.

New volunteers are trained by UNH scientists, who accompany them on two to three profiling trips to teach them proper field procedures, how to run the profiles, and how to record the information, Ward said.

Then the newcomers pair up with an experienced group. Some volunteers have been part of the program for years and are as adept at the data collection as the scientists who manage the program, Ward said. 

Eventually, those new volunteers are woven into the existing group or placed where there is an opening. The UNH scientists visit the stations periodically to work with the volunteers and refresh their skills. 

They extensively prepare the volunteers, but “we give them a lot of independence once they are trained,” Ward said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time everything looks great,” he said, but if the numbers don’t look quite right, they’ll reach out to the volunteers and figure out the issue.

You can learn more about becoming a substitute beach profile monitor by visiting seagrant.unh.edu.

Doing the work

Citizen scientists look a little different than others hitting the beach, armed with clipboards and calibrated rods. And sometimes they have to ask a fellow beachgoer to move for a moment so they can measure the plot of sand they’re sunbathing on.

Though they time their summer profiling sessions to avoid the crowds, their presence on beaches often elicits curiosity, Ward said, another source of public engagement with the science. 

The volunteers are typically given a three- or four-day window to go out each month, with the process taking about an hour, Ward said. In the cold months, when they time their profiles to midday to avoid the worst temperatures, it can take slightly longer because the volunteers are sometimes taking their gloves on and off.

The volunteers will brave snow and ice to make measurements, but plovers – an endangered species of bird – have kept the profilers from one or two stations recently, Ward said. Still, monthly changes are mostly documented. 

When volunteers get to their beach, they head out to the station marker, designated with a painted spot on the seawall or a stake in the ground.

Then, the groups use what’s called the Emery method to profile the beach, using the two sticks of identical length to record elevation, starting from the marker and moving down the beach.

They also snap pictures so the UNH scientists can see the condition of the beach, which helps verify that the measurements make sense with how the beach looks.

Finally, the data and photos are uploaded to a Google Drive, and the scientists look at how sand volume and elevation have changed over time and visualize that data into charts and graphs. 

The program recently had $32,000 in federal grants, routed through the Department of Environmental Services, approved by the Executive Council. UNH will provide $20,000 of matching funds, according to a letter describing the program to the council from DES Commissioner Robert R. Scott.

The program is looking at additional funding sources to continue the work into the future, Ward said.

“Sometimes, it’s fun,” he said of the program, though joking it was not quite as much on one winter holiday where he was profiling a bitterly cold beach. “Sometimes, it’s beautiful.”