Oceanographer Aims to Turn Millions of Surfers Into Marine Scientists

Using riding boards equipped with sensors, surfers could collect crucial data on the health of the oceans.
(Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Jan 25, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

What if every surfer in the sea were equipped with low-cost sensors to measure the health of the ocean?

United States companies like Smartfin are beginning to develop such technology with an eye toward the consumer market. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, oceanographer Bob Brewin recently completed a yearlong demonstration study by outfitting himself with a temperature sensor and paddling out at his home break. Yes, the British surf too. A recent study shows that some half a million U.K. residents surf regularly.

For the sake of science, Brewin, who is based at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, paddled out 85 times during his year of data collection. Every time he surfed, he gathered temperature readings and a precise GPS location, creating a data set. He used that information to fill in the gaps between the readings from two existing monitoring devices—satellites and an oceanographic buoy that bobs nine miles off the shore of Plymouth on the south coast of England—neither of which collect accurate readings of the near-shore coast.

Near-shore data is quite difficult and expensive to compile and represents a glaring gap in marine knowledge. Surfers happily place themselves in that zone daily, and researchers like Brewin are betting they could easily be conscripted into a citizen science campaign to measure the effects of climate change on coastal environments.

A surfboard equipped with a temperature sensor. (Photo: Bob Brewin)

“The idea is to start building data sets with temperature and potentially other environmental variables around the coastline,” he said. “There are not many long-term data sets on temperature around the coastline in the U.K. or around any coastline, for that matter.”

Temperature data is just a start, Brewin noted. Readings of salinity and bacteria could gauge water quality, pH levels, and the concentration of phytoplankton for clues to the health of fisheries. “Typically, these lower-quality sensors don’t have huge precision,” he said. “But if you begin to average huge amounts of data, it should be as useful as a single high-quality measurement.”

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Oceanographer Bob Brewin heads to work. (Photo: Bob Brewin)

The potential to collect gigabytes of data is large, even if only a fraction of the 500,000 U.K. surfers are equipped with sensors. In the U.S., if only 1 percent of an estimated 3 million active surfers participated, the scientific community would gain access to millions of annual data points with minimal effort.

Brewin’s sensor setup was fairly rudimentary—a $140 temperature sensor attached to his surfboard leash and a GPS unit tucked in a waterproof fanny pack. Most surfers probably wouldn’t be willing to carry such gear around, so Brewin is in discussions with a U.K. company about using its Bluetooth technology to allow surfers to wirelessly download data from the sensors to their smartphones. The data then could be uploaded to a server, where scientists could tap it. Still unknown is how much such technology would cost and who would pay for its deployment.

Data-rich portraits of warming oceans are emerging, but the near-shore coastal environment—the place where people interact most with the ocean—continues to be largely a place of unanswered questions. Andy Cummins of the U.K. nonprofit Surfers Against Sewage believes surfers are ready to help answer them.

“We often refer to recreational water users as marine indicator species, testing the health of the marine ecosystem with our own health,” Cummins said. “We dedicate vast chunks of our lives to studying the rhythms of the sea, so it’s no surprise that we have assumed the role of the coastal guardians.”

Brewin and Cummins have teamed up on a research proposal to broaden the scale and scope of the initial pilot study to begin to model coastline temperatures at a much higher resolution, using data from surfers in concert with satellites and offshore buoys.

“The appeal of water sports continues to grow,” said Cummins. “Surfers and recreational waters users will soon be collecting and submitting thousands of daily near-shore data readings to allow scientists to measure how climate change will influence our near-shore environment.”