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Eyes on the tides: How snapping a photo can help scientists plan for a changing coastline

Fire Island's Watch Hill
Damian Panitz
Fire Island's Watch Hill

If you took a photo of your favorite beach spot every day, you would probably notice some big changes over time. 

Brooklyn resident Damian Panitz did that at one of his favorite camping spots at Watch Hill on Fire Island. His photos are shared to an app called MyCoast that helps scientists plan for the changing coastline. 

WSHU’s Sabrina Garone spoke with Damian Panitz about how everyday people can be the best advocates for their own environment. 

Campground at Fire Island's Watch Hill
Damian Panitz
Campgrounds at Fire Island's Watch Hill

WSHU: So not only are you possibly the most active MyCoast user on Long Island, but you also are doing something kind of unique by posting from the same location. Talk me through how you got involved in using MyCoast in the first place, and why you chose this specific spot to document.

DP: Watch Hill is a family favorite. It was last year I believe or the year before, that I saw this like, little box thing to place your cell phone on. I thought 'how cool is that' for people to have a framing. That was kind of cool, so somebody was thinking about this. Then I was able to read the sign and it said 'MyCoast — if you'd like to upload a picture, please do! We're taking data.' So I figured, that could be my way of contributing some good to the world. I figured every time I go up to that area, and I believe I did do this, I would do a morning shot and an evening shot, or a late-night shot. I do it because I know it's good. I do it because it does make me feel good, but in the greater scheme of things, I have a 13-year-old son. I'm doing him good, I'm doing my neighbors good. It's all very indirect, but it's good!

WSHU: And as a barrier island, we know that Fire Island takes on the brunt of storms that we get coming through Long Island. Even just the other week, we had that series of winter storms that caused breaches in a couple of spots. Can you describe for us what you’ve observed at Watch Hill over the years? How do you think the coastline doing?

DP: I definitely think the coastline needs attention. It's been chewed away slowly over time. Some years it's worse. It seems like the bird population has kind of waxed back in, waxed and waned for a while. But it is bearing a lot of the brunt of what we're calling climate change. And I'm only judging from the inlet that was over there. Now it's starting to fill back in. When I walked over there last summer I was like, this is curious! You can walk across it now.

Fire Island's Watch Hill
Damian Panitz
Fire Island's Watch Hill

WSHU: I’m really glad you brought up birds there because not only are people affected by a changing coastline, but Long Island beaches are also home to some amazing wildlife. And I understand that you’re involved with a group that protects bird habitat there. Could you tell me a little about that?

DP: I'm part of an organization, New York City Piping Plover. They ask us, and we're about to do it soon, to go out and protect the dunes, and put up these orange rope barriers. If we spot a plover's nest, we report it. When a location is discovered, we chord off that section of the beach so people can't swim. And then part of our job is to inform beachgoers. And it's a fantastic group!

I was sort of like, should I join? You know, sometimes these environmentalist people can be a little over the top! I was like, maybe I'll give it a try. And I absolutely adored everybody I worked with. And I love the mission that we have. They did say this year, in particular, was a better year. So whatever data they had collected, this was one of the best years as far as bird population went, and we saved the most because we had so many volunteers!

WSHU: That's great news. And that's a really great example, as well as the stuff you’re doing with MyCoast, those are both great examples of community science, where observations by regular folks are working with experts and informing them about our changing environment. Could you speak to the importance of Long Island residents getting involved in efforts like these?

DP: Yeah, I think it's very important. We all as a community, whether we're from the city like me and it's not really my terrain out there, but it's very important. I don't think people take it seriously enough, you know? There's only so much you can believe that media feeds us. That's a huge topic nowadays — media, what's the truth, what's going on. If the media says, 'Oh, everything is on fire,' well, maybe it is. Or 'everything's great' well, maybe it is. But what I do know is, that's all just talk.

The action is being involved and informing people, and just doing a good thing. We as a population of the earth, because we share this planet, it's really important for us not just to respect ourselves, not just our neighbors, but everything around us. I find that important. That's why MyCoast was important to me. That's why the New York City Piping Plover organization became very important to me. I could see not just that I was a part of something — it also gave me free parking, which was a benefit of it — but I really, immediately after snapping that picture, after my first day walking along the shores, writing a report of what I did that day made me feel...Oh gosh, it made me feel important. It made me feel good. It made me feel like I'm part of the research and the development of a better tomorrow.

Fire Island's Watch Hill
Damian Panitz
Fire Island's Watch Hill

WSHU: You’ve obviously explored a lot of Long Island. Aside from contributing to community science efforts, being outdoors, and I think especially by the ocean, is so good for our mental health. And physical health too, you know, just from having to walk out there. For folks who are looking to get out in nature more in 2024 and explore more of Long Island, do you have any favorite spots that you’d recommend people check out?

DP: I want to keep it a secret! I want to keep them away, both for the birds' sake and mine!

WSHU: That's fair!

DP: But gosh, when I discovered Breezy Point for the first time...I'm a New Yorker. I was born and raised in Queens. I've been here forever and had never been to Breezy Point. It's just an untouched beach. You see the city, you see Brooklyn from there, and then the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. You know, as hard as I try not to love this state, the more I love this state! Being where I am, which is the center of the city, in the concrete jungle, it's great that I can just get on the Long Island Railroad, or drive, or take my motorcycle and find a mountain, or find a lovely beach!

If you are interested in sharing your own observations of beach erosion or flooding, visit MyCoast.org or download the MyCoast app. 

Sabrina is host and producer of WSHU’s daily podcast After All Things. She also produces the climate podcast Higher Ground and other long-form news and music programs at the station. Sabrina spent two years as a WSHU fellow, working as a reporter and assisting with production of The Full Story.