Nags Head Pier, Outer Banks, NC, during Hurricane Leslie in 2012. Photo: Lusk
Nags Head Pier, Outer Banks, NC, during Hurricane Leslie in 2012. Photo: Lusk

The More You Know

OBX scientists are looking to improve upon current crop of wave-forecasting platforms

Determining where and when to get in the water has never been easier. Even for those with limited to non-existent fluency in offshore buoy interpretation, there exist many mobile-friendly websites with local, regional, national and international wave forecasts, many of which provide up-to-the-minute updates, if not a high-resolution camera stream.

But if more accurate forecasting were available, would we be interested?

A trio of surfer-scientists from the Outer Banks seems to think so. For the last three years, retired oceanographer Jeff Hanson, along with his two partners, have developed a new wave-prediction platform called AcuSea.

"I think that everybody would welcome a more accurate surf forecast," says Hanson, who worked at Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility in Duck, NC before retiring a few years ago. "All indications are that there's a lot of excitement about improved wave forecasting technology."

According to Hanson, aside from using wind, swell height data, AcuSea incorporates publicly available bathymetric data, taking into account the bottom contours of each surf spot, to enhance the accuracy of its predictions.

Currently, Hanson's technology is in being reviewed by a group of 25 volunteers on the Outer Banks who are putting AcuSea's predictions to the test and providing feedback for improvements. While the platform is not yet publicly available, Hanson says the technology has so far been "running flawlessly."

I recently caught up with Hanson to talk about the genesis of his prediction model, what novel improvements to surf forecasting we might expect from AcuSea, and when the public might be able to give it a go.

How'd you get into surf forecasting and what led you to want to improve upon the current prediction technologies that are available?

I have a PhD in waves from Johns Hopkins University and I worked in applied physics there for 18 years. Eventually I got tired of studying waves while looking out at a parking lot in Maryland. I moved to the Army Corps of Engineers research facility in Duck [North Carolina] and was there for 13 years. Now I own a couple of companies – Waveforce and Acusea – that provide ocean wave consulting to the offshore energy industry and consulting on local shore protection and development.

We created a demo version of our wave prediction technology based on 35 years of observations that the ACOE had developed. We essentially wrote our own model from scratch, coming at wave forecasting from a different angle from traditional near shore wave modeling. It works quite well. We are using some real fast and sure techniques. There's some artificial intelligence in there. And we have some data simulation, so we are automatically incorporating all of the NDBC Buoy data. We've figured out a really nice way of managing that so that we can forecast into the future.

What about your wave forecasting model differs from some of the platforms that surfers may already be familiar with — say, Surfline, Swellwatch, Swellinfo, or Magic Seaweed?

For one thing, our forecast is for wave height right in the surf zone. It's not an offshore forecast. We are taking the wave data that you'd get from, say, a wavewatch, and bringing that estimate right into the surf zone.

In regard to the tests that we are doing now, we are running 120 spots along the coast between Virginia Beach and southern South Carolina, and it runs in seconds. We can do any resolution we want. Right now, we run the forecast out to 5 days, but we could easily and accurately run it out further.

There's also a quick-glance map that runs down the coast. You can see very quickly, if say you're on the Outer Banks, if you should travel north or south to surf for the upcoming swell. Then you can zoom in and expand the information from there.

Furthermore, there's a rich set of coastal, bathymetric data that most people aren't aware of – although it's publicly available. It's not used, really. This is high-resolution, near-shore, bathymetry data. It gives us the slope and shape of the beaches. We're using that to perform the basis of what the wave quality will be.

So all this information gets plugged into an algorithm of some kind?

Exactly. This is all running on Amazon Cloud. It's been running flawlessly, updated four times a day. All the information goes into an overall surf quality model. So you take everything in – the wind, buoys, wind angle, beach angle, beach slope. From all that information, we've built a simple one-to-ten rating system for quality of the surf in each zone. It's geared right now to the experienced surfer, where ten is really epic, not a single molecule of water out of place. A one would be either completely flat or completely blown out.

What are some of the issues or challenges you've run into so far?

We've been running the model ourselves for quite some time now and we're pretty confident in the accuracy. But for our test team, who has only had it since June, we want them to see several significant swell events. I think we'll go into hurricane season and hopefully by the end of September have enough feedback where we can go to our next phase of development, which will be to polish it off for commercialization.

Do you have plans to expand this beyond the east coast?

First we'd like to expand down the east coast. Florida and New Jersey are high on our list. Then, we’d certainly like to do California. We've been contacted to provide a demo for Hawaii. So there are lots of things in the works. It's a slow and steady process, and accuracy is still our number-one priority. When we have the best, most accurate product out there, then we've met our goal.

Are you planning on releasing the technology to the public soon?

Right now, we're really focusing on accuracy. We've been developing this for three years, concentrating on developing the most accurate wave forecasting that exists. We've built a quick interface that we've given out to a test team of surfers. We are getting lots of feedback. We haven't decided whether we're going to polish this one and release it on our own, or if we're going to partner with another provider. It's early in the game. It may even be too early to have a story out [Laughs].

[Featured Image: Nags Head Pier, Outer Banks, NC, during Hurricane Leslie in 2012. Photo: Lusk]