• Surfers around the world are using Smartfins to gather data about the health of oceans.
  • The device is fixed to the tail of surfboards and contains a number of sensors.
  • They can collect information in choppy coastal waters where traditional sensors struggle.
  • Concerns about ocean warming are encouraging surfers to get involved.

Who better to study the sea than a surfer?

That’s the big idea behind Smartfin, a US-based non-profit that’s giving data-collecting “smart” surfboard fins to surfers. The fins collect a range of data, including temperature and location.

The fins are needed because scientists need more data about the warming of our ocean. Since the 1970s more than 90% of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions has entered the sea.

Innovations like the Smartfin project – decentralizing data collection and crowdsourcing solutions to our biggest problems – is just the kind of solution the World Economic Forum’s UpLink initiative is looking for.

The surfing secret

“Most people who really call themselves surfers are out there, you know, almost every single day of the week and often for three, four hours at a time,” Smartfin’s Senior Research Engineer, Dr Phil Bresnahan tells Chemistry World. “I’m really a hobbyist compared to that.”

But it’s precisely the surfing pedigree of its scientists that has enabled Smartfin to break new ground in marine research. Because the inspiration behind Smartfins came from knowledge of an existing piece of kit.

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.

Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.

UpLink is now running the COVID Social Justice Challenge, which aims to tackle social inequalities and injustices within the COVID response and recovery.

Surfboards typically have fins mounted on the tail to improve stability in the water. The Smartfin team realized these fins could become powerful data-gathering machines if sensors were included.

A 2017 project found ocean temperature data from Smartfins (black) matched stationary sensor data (blue).
A 2017 project found ocean temperature data from Smartfins (black) matched stationary sensor data (blue).
Image: Smartfin/Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The team also figured there was a gap in existing ocean data collection methods. The dynamic, choppy nature of coastal waters makes it hard for traditional sensors to operate. And buoy-mounted sensors are limited in number and have less flexibility.

Working with researchers from the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in 2017 a collaboration with local San Diego surfers was born. The project showed how a small group of citizen scientist-surfers could collect an entirely fresh dataset that was also accurate.

Smartfins are helping scientists to track ocean temperatures around the world.
Smartfins are helping scientists to track ocean temperatures around the world.
Image: Smartfin

Much-needed insights

The San Diego trial informed today’s Smartfins, which are collecting motion data as well as temperature and location. This makes the readings even more valuable.

“This is enormously beneficial for researchers,” says Dr Bresnahan. “No scientist would be able to do a whole lot with a temperature time series without their locations.” The team hopes to include pH detectors and optical sensors soon too.

But the data isn’t just “nice to have”. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warns that rising sea temperatures are not only damaging marine habitats like coral reefs; they are also impacting food security and causing more extreme weather events.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), since 1993 it is likely that the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled and it is virtually certain that by absorbing more CO2, the ocean is undergoing increasing surface acidification.

Ocean temperatures are rising as they absorb excess heat from global warming.
Ocean temperatures are rising as they absorb excess heat from global warming.
Image: IUCN

Willing volunteers

While the cost of Smartfin production is falling, the project still relies on donations and is not looking to become a mass market product anytime soon, project creator Andy Stern tells Science Magazine.

Yet the desire to help protect a much-loved resource is motivating surfers to get involved in data collection.

After surfing sessions, Smartfins are recharged and data is uploaded to smartphones.
After surfing sessions, Smartfins are recharged and data is uploaded to smartphones.
Image: Smartfin/Youtube

“If doing what I love and being where I love to be can contribute toward scientific research with the ultimate goal of ocean conservation, then I'm stoked to be doing it,” says David Walden, Smartfin project participant at the Surfrider San Diego Chapter.

“The Smartfin Project is a joy that gives my surfing meaning. Rad!”