UGA researchers are using time lapse cameras and drones to get a birds-eye view of coastal flooding in the lowcountry. The innovative approach is providing visual data on impacts of flooding in natural and developed areas on Jekyll Island, one of Georgia’s most visited barrier islands.

“Essentially, our available land is being compressed between our water and our hard infrastructure – what we call the coastal squeeze,” says Kimberly Andrews, assistant research scientist at the UGA Odum School of Ecology, whose research is funded through Georgia Sea Grant. “We are using the cameras to help determine which areas are currently compromised by flooding and erosion, and which areas we anticipate being compromised within the next 5 years.”

Andrews, who has been working out of the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant offices in Brunswick, in 2016 deployed 15 cameras at sites around Jekyll Island as part of a collaborative project with Fraser Shilling, director of the University of California-Davis Road Ecology Center.

Each camera takes a photo every five minutes, year-round, allowing researchers to conduct rapid assessments of short-term flooding impacts to natural areas and built infrastructure, like roads or marinas.

“My initial thinking was that if you take time lapse images of a shoreline and you make a little movie out of it, you can see how fast things are changing,” says Shilling, who, in 2014, launched the time lapse camera monitoring project 2,800 miles away in San Francisco Bay. “It was a way to illustrate, visually, that these changes are happening right now.”

Andrews’ attraction to the technology is because it collects continuous, visual data without putting people in harm’s way. During Hurricane Irma, in September 2017, several of the cameras continued to take photos of the hazardous conditions after residents on the island had evacuated. Cameras on Driftwood Beach, a popular public beach on Jekyll Island, captured flooding from storm surge and shoreline erosion throughout the duration of the hurricane. Another camera on the Jekyll Island Causeway showed the water almost reaching the road before receding.

View from one of the time lapse cameras on Highway 17.

The data were included in reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and shared with local landowners and management agencies, so they could better understand how the build landscape is impacted by the storm.

After Hurricane Irma, Andrews received rapid response funding from Georgia Sea Grant and the UGA Office of Research able to expand the project to include sites on Tybee Island. She’s also incorporating drone sampling as a way of measuring erosion before and after major storms using highly accurate, fine-scale aerial imagery.

As coastal development increases, these data can be used to inform infrastructure managers, engineers and other coastal practitioners of threats to existing infrastructure, allowing them to better plan for and adapt to coastal flooding and shoreline erosion. Resource managers and marine scientists can use the data to study how changes to coastal habitats are impacting wildlife, like migratory shorebirds or sea turtles that use Georgia’s beaches and salt marshes for nesting and feeding.

“It’s not new science that these are mobile systems, but we have to figure out how to have stabilization and security for human societies as well as the ecological infrastructure that rely on the availability of shorelines,” says Andrews.

In an effort to expand coastal monitoring efforts using drones and time lapse cameras, Andrews and Shilling are developing protocols to share with coastal practitioners so they employ similar techniques in other coastal areas.

“We’re not only trying to get the most accurate assessment of coastal change, but we want to produce something that will help mobilize and empower other coastal communities,” says Andrews.

Writer: Emily Woodward Kenworthy,, 912.598.2348
Contact: Kimberly Andrews,, 912-261-3975