Surfers doing science in the breakers

Curled in the crest of a breaking wave, Benjamin Thompson, 34, of San Diego goes high-tech when he surfs Black’s Beach, his favorite spot on the Pacific Ocean. Sensors in his surfboard track waves and predict surfing conditions, but also do something else: They collect data that climate scientists desperately need.

The ocean seems vast and constant, but its chemistry is changing fast. Every day, the ocean dissolves millions of tons of carbon dioxide, producing carbonic acid that disrupts the marine environment. The effects of ocean acidification change depending on location, depth and time.

Satellites and buoys can tell us a lot about what’s happening with ocean chemistry in ocean waters. But closer to shore, satellites aren’t as accurate, and breaking waves can make waters too shallow and turbulent for buoys.

So who’s a fan of breaking waves? Surfers. With the Smartfin, a sensor-enabled surfboard insert, they may just be our best data sources.

“Collecting oceanic data is a very time-consuming, expensive process,” said Thompson, who’s also the lead engineer for Smartfin. But with this insert, “you just need to know how to surf.”

Smartfin hits the beach

The Smartfin takes measurements of ocean temperature, acidity and salinity, valuable data for climate scientists, plus detailed wave characteristics, which can alert surfers to the best places and times to catch waves. The Smartfin sends data straight to phones, and scientists, with Bluetooth wireless technology.

Best of all, Thompson has engineered the Smartfin to look and feel identical to other interchangeable fins that help control and stabilize surfboards.

With more complete data from a network, scientists will have access to near-real-time data that will help them understand and predict the effects of climate change.

“Surfers can help expand our understanding of the ocean by collecting information in the surf zone up and down our coasts,” said Libby Jewett of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “These high-energy environments are tough to monitor by virtue of the wave activity, so surfers would be filling in a critical data gap.”

Right now, Thompson is working with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to verify the accuracy of Smartfin’s measurements and start putting them in the water.

If you’d like to join surfers to take part in citizen science or a coastal cleanup, get amped for International Surfing Day on June 20. Every year, the Surfrider Foundation hosts hundreds of events around the world to connect people with their favorite beaches.

Smartfin engineer Thompson said relying on the people on the water from sunrise to sunset just makes sense.

“Nobody is more dedicated to being in the ocean than surfers.”