This article originally appeared in SURFER Magazine, Volume 59, Issue 4. Subscribe here.
Stop for a second and think about how amazing surf forecasting is at this moment in time. Thanks to modern technology, you can wake up, unlock your smartphone, and, while still in bed, pull up a global swell model to discover that a large purple blob will send waves to your local break two weeks from now (at which point you'll likely be too "sick" to go to work). Sixty years ago, the heads of our surfy forefathers—who actually had to step on the sand and look at a real-life ocean to know if there were waves—would have exploded at such a thought.
But even though computer-generated forecasting has improved exponentially over the past few decades, knowing when and where to surf during a swell still requires some guesswork. Raise your hand if you, during a recent swell, a) paddled out at a spot forecasted to be good but wasn't, b) arrived at the beach in the morning to realize the swell peaked sooner than it was forecasted to, or c) spent two hours driving around to seven different surf spots only to realize the swell was completely overhyped for your stretch of coastline.
We've all done all of the above, but will this level of uncertainty always be a part of our sport? Or will surf-forecasting technology evolve to the point where average surfers will know exactly when and where to surf every day?
According to Surfline's Kevin Wallis, there could be a chance, but it'll take a while to get there. "I'd say we're probably at a 6 out of 10 when it comes to where computer- model-generated forecasting is," says Wallis. "Taken across all the different spots and all the different swells, technology can be incredibly accurate at times but it can be incredibly bad at times, too. There's always going to be some mistakes, like the swell peaks in the afternoon versus the morning or it's 4 feet instead of 5 to 6. But in general, you're going to get a pretty good idea a week out if there are going to be waves. I think one of the areas that we have issues modeling are spots where lot of swell has to wrap in to hit certain breaks, like the Santa Barbara coastline. There's definitely a margin of error there that I think can be tightened up and improved."
The main ways spot-specific forecasts will become more accurate is if the resolution of the global models that feed swell forecasts continue to improve. "What drives most of our computer-model forecasts is a global model that looks at the earth in basically 20 mile by 20 mile grids and captures what's happening in those grids," says Wallis. "As the spatial resolution gets better, once we start seeing these grids in 10 mile by 10 mile chunks, I think that's going to improve forecasting. We'll see more frequent model forecast updates, which could improve longer-range forecasts. I also think that as we get higher resolution bathymetry for certain spots, that'll help forecasters figure out exactly how big a spot is going to be on different swell directions and swell periods depending on the underwater typography."
And since every technological field seems to be working to incorporate more advanced artificial intelligence, Wallis thinks there's an opportunity for a machine-learning algorithm to automate forecasting.
"There's potentially going to be the ability for machines to learn and take what happened last time with a certain swell at a certain spot based on human observations and apply it to future swells," says Wallis. "But that'll be contingent on having good observations. That's how forecasting works. You need really good observations and you need what's happening now to forecast out in time."
In a way, tech developers are already taking baby steps to make our surf decisions more automated. A company called Swell Navigator has partnered with a forecasting platform called Oceanweather to create an app that will allow you to select the ideal conditions for a specific spot based on your preferences and past experiences, and it'll send you a push notification for when all the right elements align.
But no matter how intelligent and automated surf forecasting becomes, Wallis thinks that the ocean will always continue to surprise us. "As soon as you think you've got a swell or a spot nailed, the ocean will throw you for a loop," says Wallis. "So either way there will always be something to be said about going and checking it every day."