"The ocean represents over 70% of the planet, and understanding how the ocean is changing under climate change is critically important to understanding how we are going to affect the future of humankind and the planet itself."
Tyler Cyronak is a science advisor for the Smartfin project, a citizen science initiative that is working with surfers to help gather data on one of the biggest environmental problems that we face today - global warming. Since the industrial revolution ocean temperatures have risen by almost 1 degree celsius. That might not sound like a lot but that’s led to melting arctic ice, rising sea levels, decimated fish populations and the destruction of coral reefs in coastal zones.
We don't really have a great understanding of how temperatures are changing in coastal zones because it's quite difficult to measure via satellite. And the data needed to help evaluate this problem can’t be collected from shore, or from deep ocean buoys either. But that’s where Smartfins come in. We don't have a tremendous amount of coastal wave data from right where the waves are actually breaking. So the smartfin can start to fill that gap.
The Smartfin is equipped with sensors and it fits onto a regular surfboard. Right now the device measures ocean temperature, motion, and location data; but it’s hoped it will eventually collect pH, acidification, salinity and water quality data as well. Because the coastal zone is teeming with life, this data will be vital to understanding how rising temperatures are affecting sensitive ocean habitats.
The really cool thing about Smartfin is that it's a citizen science project. It’s working with communities to get a better understanding of ocean health. The makers of the Smartfin are not trying to create a Fitbit for the oceans or for surfers. They're trying to create a true research and communication tool. Plus, the 50 surfer scientists using the smartfin to collect data are stoked to be helping save the oceans they love. And some of the data they’ve already collected is surprising.
"I don't think I was expecting to see so much variability in the temperature of the surf zone. Inherently, we knew this already, being surfers. You're out there and while you're surfing you can feel warm and cold patches, but to see that it's actually varying by three or four degrees in just a very small amount of space is pretty interesting."
What’s more, using the fin is simple. Just replace your board’s fin, turn it on and paddle out. Then after your surf session, the data is easily uploaded to the cloud. And one thing that its makers want to be clear about, the Smartfin will not stop you from catching the perfect wave.
"Just by being in the water all a surfer has to do is keep the thing charged and go surf; and they’ll going to be out in the water anyway so why not collect a little data while they’re at it."
But the project is so much bigger than just catching waves and collecting data. Surfers represent a unique angle to talk about climate change. We want to tap into that and come together as a community and discuss why it’s important for us to care about the oceans and why climate change is a big deal. We need to add some hope to that conversation, and hopefully the surf community can do that.