How You Can Help Scientists Track Grains Of Sand – And Why It Is Necessary

Science is fascinating and increasingly there are opportunities for ordinary citizens and students to engage. At a recent meeting focused on Engineering With Nature solutions, I struck up a conversation with Dr. Brian McFall who is a scientist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Coastal & Hydraulics Laboratory and Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). He mentioned his involvement in a project called SandSnap. He explained that it was scientific effort that could really use the public’s help in documenting grains of sand on beaches. I just had to write about this and help spread the word.

McFall told me, “The goal for SandSnap is to amass a nationwide beach grain size database by engaging citizen scientists and educate the next generation about coastal processes.” It is a pretty simple process since most of us walk around with smartphones these days. Citizen scientists (like you) simply take a picture of sand at a beach with a U.S. coin and then upload it to the SandSnap web application. The phone’s built in GPS system will pin the specific location. Sounds easy, right? Why does McFall and colleagues want information about grains of sand?

Before answering that question, some context is appropriate. McFall wrote in an email, “There is a nationwide understanding of our beach’s shape from airborne lidar that has been captured multiple times, and there is a good understanding of the waves and tidal forcing acting on our beaches using the extensive network of wave and tide gauges around our coasts, but there is no nationwide beach grain size database.” At this point, even I was thinking, “What is the so what in knowing beach grain size?” The answer is actually pretty simple but has important implications for society. McFall went on to note, “Knowing what the beach is made of is really important for quantifying the storm resilience of our beaches….knowing the full range of sand grain sizes on our beaches may allow more dredged sediment from navigation channels to be utilized in beach nourishment projects, which leads to increased coastal protection and saves millions of tax dollars.”

When you submit your sample, the gradation results of the sand in the image and a fun fact about a famous beach with similar grain size are returned to the user within two minutes, according to McFall. He went to explain to me how the analysis is done. An open-source deep learning convolutional neural network is trained to estimate beach sand grain size using a U.S. coin as a scale of reference. You can even see image submissions and extracted grain size data on the SandSnap web application thanks to cloud-based storage technology.

McFall mentioned existing educational outreach for the project including a “Think Like a Citizen Scientist” event for the Girl Scouts and SandSnap Discovery Bags that can be checked out from public libraries in coastal communities. Like grains of sand on a beach, I imagine there are numerous fun ways to engage with this project while helping the Army Corps of Engineers address important science and technology challenges around resiliency and coastal protection.

Ok, get to snapping…

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