Updates, Smartfin
May 31 2017

Smartfin Program Kicks Off in San Diego

by Shannon Waters

After years of engineering and months of testing, the Smartfin is ready for the ocean! The Smartfin is a surfboard fin with sensors that measure important ocean properties that help researchers and coastal communities understand trends in ocean health. With the Smartfin, surfers become citizen scientists, turning wave sets into data sets simply while surfing their favorite breaks.

The Surfrider Foundation has partnered with the Lost Bird Project, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Futures Fins to bring “smart” surfing technology and ocean health awareness to coastal communities. Smartfin’s founder, Andy Stern, started the project as a response to the global threats of climate change.

“I believe that the biggest challenge of our time is to respond in a truly meaningful way to the threats of climate change which is also a threat to human health,” said Stern.“The Smartfin program is a tool to raise awareness that hopefully initiates some kind of environmental activism and science-based policy so that we can create that meaningful response.”

As a partner on the project, the Surfrider Foundation is working with our network of chapters around the U.S. to create communities of Smartfin surfers, and on May 31, 2017 we kicked off this new program with a pilot project with the San Diego chapter! Nearly 60 people showed up to the meeting to learn how they can start surfing for science through this new citizen science program. The Surfrider Foundation’s CEO, Dr. Chad Nelsen, welcomed the group and shared his thoughts about why the Surfrider Foundation and our network of surfers are the perfect partners for the Smartfin program.

"Surfers spend more time in the ocean than anyone else and they recreate in the surf zone, which is the most important and difficult part of the ocean to study,” said Nelsen. “Further, they are already avid students of weather, oceanography and coastal processes. So surfers are the perfect citizen scientists to help measure the impacts of climate change on our coasts and to lead efforts to mitigate these impacts."

While surfing with the Smartfin, these citizen scientists are collecting data (temperature, GPS, and motion) which will then be shared with Smartfin’s research partners at Scripps Institution of Oceanography to inform the scientific community about ocean conditions in the surf zone.

Speaking to the crowd of surfers, Scripps scientists Phil Bresnahan and Tyler Cyronak talked about the need for Smartfin sensors to help fill data gaps in oceanographic monitoring.

“Currents and waves in the coastal zone - and especially in the surf zone - produce a lot of energy, so it’s a difficult place to monitor,” said Cyronak. “Buoys and sensors can get covered in sand or get broken. Another way we monitor is by satellite, but there can be a lot of interference between the bottom of the ocean, the land, and the clouds, making visibility from satellite challenging. So to have a vast array of Smartfin sensors out there quantifying the spatial and temporal changes in chemistry would be great. Smartfin sensors could also increase the amount of data generated across spatial and temporal scales. When you look at the California coastline, we currently have four stations between La Jolla and San Francisco generating data on piers, sampling every half hour or so. If we can have surfers collecting data with Smartfins at an additional eight surf-breaks, that’s twice as many data points, and the more data we have, the more we’ll be able to understand what’s actually happening in our oceans.”

When asked about how the data might be used to advance oceanographic research, Cyronak mentioned one possible study on coral reefs, “Coral reefs bleach under higher temperatures, and in order to monitor where they are bleaching we need to know how and where the ocean temperature is changing. There are currently monitoring stations across the Caribbean and Pacific providing temperature data to scientists. However, these stations only cover a certain amount of reefs, so there is a data gap. Surfers love to surf on coral reefs - in fact some of the best waves in the world are coral reef breaks - so the Smartfin technology is a perfect way to more closely and locally monitor coral reefs to understand when bleaching might begin to occur and what changes to anticipate for the future.”

Image Credit: NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program

Through this pilot project with the San Diego chapter, Surfrider members will be able to “check out” one of the chapter’s twenty-five Smartfins for a three-month period. Those who were in attendance at the kick-off meeting who didn’t go home with a Smartfin to surf were put on a waitlist and will be given a chance to surf with a Smartfin once more become available. During this pilot project, Smartfin surfers will be surfing with the Smartfin, uploading data using an iPhone or Android app, and providing Smartfin program administrators with valuable feedback for improvements to the program.

Smartfin surfer and long-time Surfrider member, Ryan Vaughn, shared his stoke after the meeting. “I am really excited about the ability of citizen science, and Smartfin in particular, to both collect meaningful data and provide a touchpoint for discussions about climate change with the public. Surfers are a chatty group and in the water everyone wants to know what's going on with an interesting set up. Also having a marginally unselfish reason to go surf is a big win.”

To learn more about Smartfin, check out our Smartfin program page.

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