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New app helps track Rhode Island’s changing shores

The goal is to help get Rhode Islanders engaged and interested in their shore and the changes that happen there

Pam Rubinoff, shoreline resiliency specialist at URI, demonstrates how to take a photo of the beach.Glenn Osmundson

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It takes only a few seconds. Place your smartphone in the metal cradle at the corner of the pavilion at East Matunuck State Beach, then take a picture — don’t zoom — of the sweeping vista in front of you. Scan the QR code on the sign nearby to bring up a website. Follow a couple simple instructions to upload the photo.

And suddenly, you’re helping track shoreline change in Rhode Island.

“You’re a scientist now,” said Pam Rubinoff, a University of Rhode Island shoreline resiliency specialist who’s helping manage the program. “That was really easy, right?”

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The new initiative, called CoastSnap, is part of a program to track shoreline change in Rhode Island. It’s now available in three locations: Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly; Latham Park in Barrington; and East Matunuck, where Rubinoff was showing it off to a Globe reporter on a recent Tuesday.

In part, it will help the managers of those properties make decisions about things like beach replenishment, shore restoration, or the location of infrastructure on a dynamic and eroding shoreline that is also facing the pressures of sea level rise.

But more broadly, the goal is also to help get Rhode Islanders engaged and interested in their shore and the changes that happen there.

“We do community science to help complement other science, but also to build stewardship in the community,” said Rubinoff, whose job involves acting as a liaison between the experts and the community. “And then to have these people be advocates for their resources.”

CoastSnap, which originated in Australia and is active in 22 countries, is being integrated into the MyCoast app, which has been around in Rhode Island for a few years. With the MyCoast app, Rhode Islanders can go out and take pictures of big storm events and king tides to document the effect on vulnerable areas.

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Now, with CoastSnap added to that in Rhode Island, people will also be able to track the more gradual changes over time from one static position. And it will help collect a lot of “before” pictures for when those big storms do roll in.

The initiative is part of a partnership among the University of Rhode Island; the university-based Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant; the state Department of Environmental Management; and the towns that are hosting them. CoastSnap is being brought to Rhode Island with funding from the national Sea Grant program, which also supports the initiative in other coastal states in the Northeast.

In Barrington, the CoastSnap station will help track a planned project to stabilize the shoreline around Latham Park, and make it more resilient in a way that’s more natural than a seawall. The project would involve regrading slopes and placing “burritos” — soil wrapped in coconut fiber — as well as rocks and plantings, to help reduce or prevent erosion.

“It gives us a nice baseline of the before photos so when we go through construction, we’ll be able to show over time how well the new infrastructure holds up against the coastal forces of storm surge, high tides, any kind of wind or erosion,” said Teresa Crean, the director of planning, building and resilience in Barrington.

A snow fence helps prevent erosion at at East Matunuck State Beach in South Kingstown.Glenn Osmundson

There are similar tracking initiatives elsewhere in Rhode Island. On Prudence Island, there are four locations where people can take standardized photos through a different app called Picture Post.

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“Right now, it’s more important than ever with climate change to track changes over time,” said Caitlin Chaffee, the DEM official who manages the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve on Prudence Island. “It gives a way for visitors to create standardized data points, because they’re putting their phone in the same place each time.”

The CoastSnap version went live in September in Rhode Island. Already, according to Rubinoff, the URI resilience specialist, over 100 photographs have been submitted through CoastSnap since the soft launch. Those photos can be viewed on MyCoast, which already has close to 3,000 photos from over the years.

All of them are available for viewing and use for things like research, education, or even just curiosity. They’re helping paint an undeniable picture of change. When Rubinoff goes to communities to talk about sea level rise or coastal damage, people will sometimes say, “Oh, that doesn’t happen here.” She’ll show them photos. Then it becomes real.

“It’s amazing to see, in pictures, what’s going on in your community,” Rubinoff said. “It’s the classic, a picture’s worth 1,000 words.”

A trio of canines runs on East Matunuck State Beach. Glenn Osmundson





Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44.