(Photo: Kirstin Scholtz/ASP via Getty Images)

Riding Massive Waves Could Fight Climate Change

A San Diego company has created a wireless sensor that can be embedded in a surfboard fin to measure ocean acidification.
Sep 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

Benjamin Thompson thinks he’s figured out a way to turn every surfer into a wave-riding researcher collecting data on ocean acidification caused by climate change.

The best part: The surfers don’t have to do anything but chase the perfect wave.

Thompson, a surfer and an engineer, looked out at the blue horizon and realized that his wave-hunting peers could be turned into citizen scientists simply by installing a tiny sensor in their surfboard’s fin. Thompson’s SmartPhin collects data on temperature, salinity, pH, and location as the surfer paddles around the ocean and catches waves. When the surfer gets out of the water, the data is uploaded wirelessly to his or her smartphone through a Bluetooth connection and then to servers.

“Nobody is more dedicated to being in the ocean than surfers,” said Thompson, 33. “You go out at sunrise, and the beach is already scattered with surfers, not anyone else.”

Those surfers are also putting themselves in one of the most difficult places to collect data—the highly volatile and dynamic near-shore environment of the break zone. “It’s prohibitively expensive to deploy equipment in that zone—one storm wipes the whole thing out,” Thompson said. “Surfers, though, deploy themselves there willingly every day.”

Thompson’s San Diego start-up, Boardformula, has created a SmartPhin prototype and is working with Futures, a major fin manufacturer. Boardformula is also competing for the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize. The competition is designed to spur a technology breakthrough to develop cheap and accurate pH sensors that can be deployed around the world to measure the rapid acidification of marine environments as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from power plants and other sources.

Thompson’s goal is to turn every surfer into a data collection buoy, feeding information into a single location accessible online by ordinary people and scientists alike.

“It’s a paradigm shift of going from hundreds of points of data, like what you see at NOAA’s Data Buoy Center, to hundreds of thousands of points of data collection on any given day all around the world,” he said.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is validating the sensor as part of the design process, and Thompson believes his technology could soon be deployed to aid Scripps’ research.

Say marine scientists are interested in reliable, real-time data on a particular reef in Hawaii. Collecting that data would be as simple as equipping the 30 locals who surf that spot every day with SmartPhins.

“This is truly economical data collection,” said Thompson. “Most ocean data sensors are designed for scientists willing to do some work to get their data. Surfers don’t actually have to do anything. It’s just a part of their normal routine, and they feel good about doing it.”

Surfers, however, tend to be suspicious of new surfboard technology, particularly if they think it’ll affect their fun on the waves. Rest easy, brah—Thompson said that although the SmartPhin weighs an ounce more than a typical fin, surfers won’t notice a thing. “The stiffness and damping are comparable to a standard fiberglass fin, so it will have the same performance characteristics,” he said.

The Audubon Society pioneered citizen science in 1900 with its ongoing Christmas Bird Count, but in the past decade, it’s in the world’s oceans that citizen science has really thrived. From reefcheck.org and seafloorexplorer.org to Sharks Count and Jelly Watch, nonscientists are making important contributions to our understanding of the ocean.

“As great as our scientists are working to solve ocean problems today, they can’t be everywhere at every time,” said Jennifer Galvin, a scientist, filmmaker, and director of the Henry David Thoreau Foundation. “Citizens in, on, and under the ocean are our first line of observation. I’d like to see science as more of a bottom-up process.”

Engaging citizens is key to making progress against seemingly intractable problems such as climate change, sea level rise, and ocean acidification.

“We’ll consider ourselves successful when we connect people more deeply to the ocean,” Thompson said. “We’re out to change the meaning of what it means to be a core surfer—to be truly a steward of the environment.”

Also, when you show up to work with wet hair, you can just tell your boss you were out collecting scientific data to save the planet.