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Smartfin Turns Surfers Into Citizen-Scientists

San Diego surfers may hold the (fin) key to unlocking the mysteries of climate change

Despite the lack of summer swell over the past three months, 50 surfers in the San Diego area have been paddling out as much as possible, putting a new line of fins through the paces. The group of test-riders, however, is not all that interested in how responsive the fins might feel coming off the top, or how much spring the fins might add to their bottom turns. The group is, instead, interested in the temperature, the salinity, and pH levels in the surf zone they've paddled into.

Starting in May, through a collaboration with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a non-profit called The Lost Bird Project, Surfrider Foundation's San Diego chapter began distributing special fins, called Smartfins, which contain temperature sensors, a GPS device, a circuit board with a microcontroller, and a rechargeable battery. Smartfinswhich are currently compatible only with Future fin boxes—were developed in order to collect nearshore data, or data from the surf zone, a traditionally difficult area to monitor. Scientists are excited about the prospect of the to-be-collected data, as many believe more accurate nearshore readings for pH, chlorophyll, salinity, oxygen, and temperature changes may help them better understand the effect of climate change on coastal habitats.

"We are always looking for cool ways to communicate about the environment," says Smartfin and Lost Bird Project founder, Andrew Stern. A Neurology professor for three decades, Stern says his interests shifted toward climate change activism roughly eight years ago.

"What is motivating me now is the unimaginable human suffering that is going to come from climate change, even if we get a handle on mitigation," Stern says. "One big reason why we haven't made a reasonable effort to respond to the climate science, which we've known about for over 30 years, is because we are so disconnected. What we are trying to do with Smartfin is reconnect people with the environment."

Despite extensive research on the impacts of climate change on coastal habitats, most of what scientists currently understand comes from open ocean data. Near-shore ocean data is notoriously difficult to gather, but vitality important.

Before Smartfins, ocean data was being collected in one of two ways. Open-ocean buoys collect reliable and accurate data. But they are expensive and only measure what's taking place offshore, as deploying the buoys in the surf zone would imperil the pricey equipment. Near-shore data, then, is collected mostly by satellites, which produce accurate readings for the most part, but can have trouble distinguishing between the land and the open ocean when measuring in more dynamic surf zones.

In surfers, Stern saw a group of people with intimate knowledge of the near-shore ocean environment. He recruited engineer Benjamin Thompson to lead the development of Smartfins, before two scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, engineer Phil Bresnahan and coastal biogeochemist Tyler Cyronak, came on board. After several years and millions of dollars in R&D, a Smartfin prototype was developed, and Stern began distributing them as widely as possible. At around $300 a fin, Smartfins represent a relatively cheap way of collecting nearshore data.

But as Stern and the team at Scripps hoped to increase the sample size of data being collected by Smartfins, the challenge became getting the technology into the hands of surfers and onto their surfboards. Surfrider SD's distribution of Smartfins represents a huge leap forward for the project.

"With Surfrider's San Diego chapter being the biggest global chapter, it made a lot of sense to kick off this pilot project in the San Diego area," says Surfrider SD Smartfin project manager Shannon Waters. "We had already tested the fins and determined that they are working really well. But we wanted to really put the rollout system to the test."

Over the course of three months, Surfrider gave the 50 fins away for free, hoping that the Smartfins and the educational materials Surfrider distributes with the fins would create an engaged group of citizen-scientists. Surfers who receive Smartfins need only to make sure the fin is charged and turned on before paddling out. With a battery that lasts as long as three and a half hours, surfers are able to collect a significant amount of information before plugging the fin into their smartphone or laptop and uploading the data into a user interface specifically designed for the Smartfin project.

And so far so good, according to Waters, as the pilot program has been running smoothly enough that 220 people in the San Diego area have now signed up to participate. There has been one hiccup, however.

"One of the most common issues we've encountered, or reasons why people aren't uploading rides, is because the swell has been really small," she laughs. "Unfortunately, we can't do anything about that."

With the successful pilot program winding down, Waters says the biggest challenge facing the project will be related to scaling. Though there is a lot of interest in the fin from the surf community, Surfrider will need funding to help keep up with both the demand for Smartfins and the ambitions of the scientific community.

"We've received so much interest [in Smartfins] from every corner of the world. We'd love to start up Smartfin projects in all these places," Waters says. "Our biggest challenge now will be the funding mechanism. We are trying to find the right grants, or foundations who might be interested in funding the project."

For now, Waters says the best way to get involved is to contact your local Surfrider chapters. And if you live in the San Diego area and want to sign up for the waiting list for fins, go here.