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Army Corps Partners with Academia to Collect Data for Coastal Programs

US Army Corps of Engineers
Published June 16, 2021

Dr. Brian McFall, an Army Corps research civil engineer, discusses a concept with Danielle Tomasso, a planner for the Army Corps' New York District, at Jones Beach State Park in New York.


Danielle Tomasso (right) a planner with the New York District Army Corps of Engineers, speaks with students from James Madison University during an outreach event at Jones Beach State Park in New York.


A learning station where Girl Scouts learned how different types of sediment erode at different rates.


Dr. Shelley Whitmeyer, a professor at James Madison University in Virginia (right), discusses an item with a participant during an outreach program at Jones Beach State Park in New York.


The Atlantic Ocean churns up a breaking wave at Jones Beach State Park in New York on the south shore of Long Island.


Dr. Shelley Whitmeyer (right), a professor at James Madison University, interacts with college students preparing for a public outreach event at Jones Beach State Park in New York.


Preparing a learning station for Girl Scouts at New York's Jones Beach State Park on Long Island.


Students and faculty from James Madison University with Dr. Brian McFall, Army Corps of Engineers' research civil engineer, right, and Danielle Tomasso, a planner for the Army Corps of Engineers, second from right, at New York's Jones Beach State Park on Long Island on the Atlantic Ocean.

The US Army Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Inlets Research Program (a team of scientists and engineers studying waves, current, sediment transport and sea-floor change at or near inlets) and James Madison University are collaborating on the new Sand Snap initiative to collect beach sediment data (sand grains) by engaging citizen scientists in data collection. The U.S. Geological Service, Marda Science, LLC, and Sea Grant are also contributing to the program.


Citizen science is when scientists ask the public for help with data collection to advance research. Crowdsourcing is a popular and cost-effective way to collect large amounts of data while increasing interest in the research through public engagement. Citizen scientists equipped with their smartphones allow for very large datasets to be collected that would otherwise be financially or logistically impossible.


Sand is typically comprised of varying amounts of material weathered from inland rocks and transported to the beach by wind and through rivers, along with hard objects from the ocean.

Why is sand-grain size important??

Sediment Size

Grain size impacts the beach in several ways: The shape and slope of the beach, how easily the beach erodes, and the longevity of the beach. Understanding grain size is a key factor when the Army Corps dredges inlets and offshore areas and places sand on the coastline: Grain size and texture must match the existing sediment on the beach ─ as closely as possible ─ to ensure a project’s success. Scientists find it challenging to estimate grain size. Data collected from citizen scientists is very helpful in quantifying the uncertainty of coastal engineering projects.

Research Data
Army Corps engineers use sand grain size data when making decisions involving coastal navigation inlet and coastal storm risk management projects. They’re asking the public to participate in Sand Snap ─  a citizen science initiative with a public website that functions as a central database for collecting sand grain-size information used in research.
Jones Beach Event

A public outreach event was held June 5 at New York’s Jones Beach State Park on Long Island on the Atlantic Ocean. A group of Girl Scouts and their families learned about different types of sand and how they’re impacted by water and waves through hands-on learning activities. Leading those activities were Dr. Shelley Whitmeyer, assistant professor of geology and environmental science at James Madison University, and Dr. Brian McFall, an Army Corps Coastal Inlets Research Program research civil engineer. They were assisted by geology students from James Madison University and New York District Army Corps personnel.

Activities were aligned to the requirements of the Girl Scout Citizen Science Journey ─ an initiative where Girl Scouts collect and share data used by scientists in their research to answer important research and engineering questions.

Interactive Learning

Four learning stations were set up in an area on the beach. At one station participants learned about the different sizes, textures and colors of sand. Girl Scouts had an opportunity to hold rocks and ask questions about their similarities and differences. At a second area, participants were able to test their recall skills by observing and recording objects. The Scouts also learned how water and waves impact erosion.

A third station included three trays that held different textures and sizes of sand (sand on top, water below). Scouts created waves by pushing empty plastic bottles into the water, causing water to impact the sand. They learned that smaller, lighter types of sediment erode more easily than larger grains. Scouts learned about varying sand density by digging holes and building sandcastles at a final station.

At the Beach 

Participants then made their way to the shore to apply their learning: Digging a half-inch into the sand, smoothing the bottom, and placing a coin inside. Parents assisted by taking photos with their smartphones and uploading them to the Sand Snap website.

Understanding Grain-Size Variations

Sediment data is needed from all coastal areas of the United States, including the East-, West- and Gulf coasts, and the Great Lakes. There’s great significance in sand-grain data, as nearly $1 billion is invested each year operating and maintaining federal coastal inlet navigation projects and waterways. Sand Snap is an emerging program developed by Dr. Whitmeyer, Dr. McFall, and their partners. In discussion for some time, lessons learned from this year’s pilot program will be applied next year when the program is expected to expand significantly.
Dr. McFall commented: “Our beaches are very dynamic, and beach-grain size changes naturally through the seasons or can change through human activities like beach nourishments. Capturing beach grain size variations are critical for improving our understanding of the beach system.”


“Accurately forecasting the movement of sediment is a complex process. Public support with data collection will forward important coastal research,” said Danielle Tommaso, a New York District Army Corps planner.

Coastal Inlets

Coastal inlets play an important role in navigation, shore protection and the larger environment. Some  characteristics of coastal inlets include:

►Close connection with beach stability and estuary health

►Provide vital commercial and military navigation links

►Central for exchange of water, sediment and nutrients between estuaries and seas

►Provide recreational opportunities and contribute to the economy of coastal communities

Learn More

Click here to learn more about Sand Snap and how you can get involved.