| jackiebabe via morguefile

Surfboard sensors serve science

Surfers catching waves can now help scientists catch better data.

The Surfrider Foundation announced Aug. 29 that it is joining a project to equip surfers with technology that gathers data on how climate change may affect oceans.

The Smartfin is a surfboard fin loaded with sensors to collect data. It was conceived by Dr. Andrew Stern, the executive director of Lost Bird, an arts-based environmental non-profit.

His Smartfin project fits into the Surfrider Foundation’s big-picture goal of empowering everyday people to become citizen scientists and find solutions to problems affecting oceans and coasts.  

“It was a natural partnership,” said Shannon Waters, Surfrider’s project manager for the Smartfin Project.

The Smartfin is now being tested and validated in preparation for its initial launch by the San Diego Chapter of the foundation in early 2017.

So far, the fin contains a temperature sensor and GPS, said Dr. Tyler Cyronak of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Cyronak is on the research team that has partnered with the Smartfin project to test the sensors.

“We’re trying to validate sensors to make sure that the data is scientifically viable for research questions that scientists would want to ask,” Cyronak said.

According to the Smartfin website, the final product should include sensors for salinity, pH, temperature, location, wave characteristics and more. Cyronak and the Scripps researchers are working toward a salinity sensor with the long-term goal of including a PH sensor.

“What’s limiting is the size of the instrument itself,” Cyronak said. “And being able to develop a sensor that’s scientific grade and research grade and can stay well-calibrated in the hands of citizen scientists.”

For the most part, the people using the sensors will be surfers going about their normal routine with no scientific training.

Dr. Jaye E. Cable, a professor in marine sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sees the value in using citizen scientists to collect data. 

“Usually people are really excited to participate, because they're usually so far removed from science on a day-to-day basis,” said Cable, who is not involved in the Smartfin project.

“I do think there's a lot of value in collecting samples while you're in transit, because when you're collecting a sample at one location, it's a passive approach,” she said. “It's entirely different if you're moving with the current.”

Surfers at Scripps have started a second round of beta testing in the ocean near the laboratory. The data collected by the Smartfin is being compared to the data collected by stationary equipment on the pier.

So far, the Smartfin sensors have proved accurate. If these results continue, the initial release to San Diego surfers will expand up and down the coast.

“Ideally, the ultimate goal is to extend to global distribution in the future,” said Waters.

Until now, scientists have been limited to attaching sensors to piers, buoys or boats.

“As a scientist, I’m really interested in this to collect more data,” Cyronak said. “But really half of the project is helping raise awareness through surfers as a voice. 

“Andy Stern thought surfers had a powerful voice, they’re really connected to the oceans. To have this community that raises awareness about climate change, engaging citizens that aren’t scientists, and getting citizen scientist involved, I think is a big part of this project as well.”

The Surfrider Foundation has also been contacted by kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders, swimmers and sailors asking about the potential for adapting the technology.

“We may develop different fins for those sports,” Waters said. “We’re just getting started here.”

Both Cyronak and Waters said that climate change and ocean acidification are major problems that scientists can understand better with data collected by the SmartFin.

Ocean acidification is process of ocean water taking in more carbon dioxide and becoming more acidic. According to the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, surface-ocean-water acidity levels have risen 30 percent since the industrial revolution.

“It’s been called climate change’s evil twin,” Cyronak said. “In coastal areas, where most of organisms live, the chemistry is very dynamic. It changes hourly over the course of a day, seasonally, and over space very quickly. Understanding what’s happening in the coastal zone is very important and we need a lot more sensors out there.”