Surfers conduct scientific research while surfing. Seriously. And it’s a valuable contribution.
Coastal communities are most affected by climate change. The problem is strong waves make it difficult to install sensors close to coastlines to monitor near-shore conditions. Surfers, however, flock to big waves. Is it possible to use surfers to cost-effectively gather near-shore data around the globe—to turn them into citizen scientists?
Researchers in the Smartfin project say yes.
Background of the Smartfin project
Smartfin is the brain child of Dr. Andrew Stern at The Lost Bird Project. It is engineered by Benjamin Thompson of BoardFormula. Surfrider Foundation provides logistical and outreach support for the distribution of fins to its network of surfers worldwide. And researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the world’s leading institutions for oceanographic research, validate the scientific application of Smartfin in the surf zone.
There’s an African quote, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” SmartFin plans to go far. It collaborates extensively with other groups passionate about surfing, climate change and protecting the environment.
The challenge of collecting near-shore data
Oceans cover about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and influence both weather and climate. As the EPA explains:
As greenhouse gases trap more energy from the sun, the oceans absorb more heat, resulting in an increase in sea surface temperatures and rising sea levels. Changes in ocean temperatures and currents brought about lead to alterations in climate patterns. Coastal communities are impacted by rises in sea level rise and stronger storms.
Oceans help reduce climate change by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Increasing levels of dissolved carbon change the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic. Increased ocean acidity makes it more difficult for certain organisms, such as corals and shellfish, to build their skeletons and shells. This alters biodiversity and productivity of ocean ecosystems.
How Smartfins work
How is data collected?
Sensors are mounted beneath the fiberglass surface of the surfboard. Data is captured while surfing and stored in a chip inside the fin. Back on land, surfers transmit the sensor data captured to the cloud for analysis via Bluetooth and a mobile app.
What parameters are measured?
Temperature, location and wave characteristics are measured. Other sensors are planned for salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen levels and chlorophyll.
Why are these measurements important?
Many scientific instruments collect data offshore and in the open ocean. Nearshore environments such as the surf zone are a more dynamic ecosystem because of wave energy. This makes it difficult to install sensors, buoys and floats. Smartfin surfboard sensors collect data on ocean conditions close to shore.
What kind of insights are derived, and how they are used?
Meaningful research requires large datasets captured over an extended period of time. Some of the applications being explored include the following:
- Climate change and ocean acidification in near-shore environments
- Fish and shellfish yields that are in decline
- Algal blooms that poison drinking water and marine life
- Changes in the coastal ecosystem health in areas near desalinization and power plants
- Coral reef bleaching and declining coral ecosystem health
- Heat exchange, energy dissipation and gas exchange associated with breaking waves
The Smartfin ecosystem
Collecting oceanic research data from around the world with limited resources demands a broad ecosystem. Smartfin exemplifies win-win collaboration for the greater good.
Smartfin is an initiative of Lost Bird, a small non-profit that extends its impact through partnerships.
Surfrider Foundation, another non-profit, provides logistical and outreach support for the distribution of Smartfins to its network of surfers worldwide. It’s dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches.
Smartfin collaborates with researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to validate the scientific application of Smartfin in the surf zone. Scripps is one of the world’s leading institutions for oceanographic research and a department of the University of California, San Diego. It’s mission is to “seek, teach and communicate scientific understanding of the oceans, atmosphere, Earth and other planets for the benefit of society and the environment.”
Scripps has made many valuable findings. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a Scripps researcher, identified in 2008 particulate black carbon as the second-largest human contributor to global warming behind carbon dioxide. His observations became the scientific basis of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, an international black carbon mitigation initiative joined by 24 countries, the United Nations and the World Bank.
More than just data
Smartfin isn’t just about the data. It connects surfers and their communities to larger issues affecting ocean health. Communities can mobilize to combat problems caused by climate change using the ocean warming and acidification data collected.
Smartfins will be distributed through the Surfrider Foundation starting in San Diego in 2017. This form has more details.
Even if you’re not a surfer, you can support environmental research by donating to Smartfin.
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