Ocean Newsletter

【Ocean Newsletter】Latest

No.436 October 5, 2018
  • Phil BRESNAHAN
    Head of Research and Development for Smartfin / Research Engineer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

The Smartfin Project

The Tech

Along with blockchain, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things is without a doubt one of today's buzziest tech topics. It is already making its mark in smart homes, smart cities, agricultural tech, and industrial monitoring, to name just a few impacted sectors. Yet its entry into oceanography has proven elusive, due in no small part to the difficulties of accessing the broadest reaches of the world's oceans with wireless data transfer capabilities. It's much easier to set up a WiFi network in a metropolitan area than it is along our coastlines.

The Smartfin Project aims to solve this problem to the mutual benefit of oceanography and environmental conservation. Smartfin is an Internet of Things enabled surfboard fin with oceanographic sensors. It is designed to fit into the "fin box" of many standard surfboards (a fin box is the slot into which a surfboard fin is fastened; the vast majority of fins can be interchanged). The idea is simple: a surfer with a Futures side fin box or standard replaceable center fin can remove his or her current fin, replace it with a Smartfin, turn it on, surf, and instantaneously be transformed from just a surfer to an environmental data collection buoy. Smartfin currently comprises technology to log data internally (on a micro-SD card) from motion, temperature, and GPS sensors and then transmit a surf session's worth of data wirelessly to the cloud where it can be accessed by the surfers, oceanographers, or any other curious individual. And new sensors—to measure, for example, pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll fluorescence, salinity—are under development and in plans for future iterations of the technology.

Figure 1 – Prototype Smartfin with temperature, motion, and GPS sensors in addition to wireless charging and data transfer capabilities

Figure2 – Distribution map of surfers with Smartfins around San Diego on 31 July 2018

There are many oceanographic features worth investigating that Smartfin data can already potentially facilitate, especially at the smaller spatial scales that can be observed via crowdsourced datasets: coral bleaching, accuracy of satellite observations, rip currents and changing shoreline shapes, how waves break and how sea level rise is affecting where surfers surf. And we are perhaps even more excited about those which we haven't yet discovered, either because we don't know to look for them or lack the technology to do so.

Oceanography, at least as much as other fields of science, has its roots in exploration. The earliest oceanographic datasets come from expeditions funded by governments who wished to expand trade routes and discover what laid beyond the reach of their binoculars. In a way, Smartfin wishes to reinvigorate this type of exploratory oceanography by collaborating with those who regularly go into the water for their own mini-adventures. We have already established many successful collaborations with surfing scientists including, for example, Dr. Bob Brewin at PML in the UK and Drs. Kylie Scales and Javier Leon at University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. We hope that this is just the beginning of our expansion into the realm of scientific research!

The Community

Moreover, there are many aspects of oceanography and planetary science that we, the scientific community, have a very firm grasp on but have been unsuccessful in conveying to the broader public. Issues like ocean acidification, ocean warming, coral bleaching, sea level rise, and overfishing are known to be human caused (or, at the very least, human exacerbated) and furthermore are known to have detrimental effects for broad segments of the population. Yet we have fallen far short in galvanizing the public to the extent necessary to dramatically slow or, ideally, halt these effects. While scientists absolutely require more data to understand the finer features of these changes (for example, exactly which section of a coral reef might be more susceptible to bleaching due to genetic and/or physical factors? Where will sea level rise and ever-changing coastal morphology intersect to have more negative consequences? What might we be able to do to ameliorate these harmful phenomena on a case-by-case basis?), we do not in fact need more data to establish the case that we, humans, are responsible for causing them.

Science appears to suffer from the fact that, by nature, it requires deep and thorough investigation which, in turn, can alienate non-specialists. For example, despite the fact that I am a moderately successful marine chemist and ocean sensor developer, I know an almost embarrassingly small amount about marine biology. On a good day, I can name about ten different fishes at most! It's hard to know how to communicate the depth of specific issues without turning off those who spend most of their time thinking about things other than, for example, how carbonate concentrations are decreasing and bicarbonate increasing, all due to the net oceanic influx of carbon dioxide and the thermodynamic equilibria governing their partitioning and resulting in the decreasing saturation states of the minerals used by many marine shell-forming organisms (that is, ocean acidification, at its core—put in comparatively publicly unfriendly terms).

Smartfin in particular but citizen science in general strive to be more inclusive of nonspecialists with the ultimate goal of working with them throughout the scientific process in order to elevate entire communities' understanding of core, deeply important scientific issues.

The Response

The Smartfin team believes that we stand a greater chance at spurring meaningful environmental action by forming stronger, more passionate communities. We further believe that surfing provides an exciting opportunity to build these communities with an already energized crowd. Surfers are, to generalize, rather deeply connected to the earth's natural patterns and inspired to protect natural resources. A surfer is not only in tune with the day-to-day meteorological patterns that determine current swell conditions but they can usually tell you when the last several El Niño winters occurred (because they bring bigger, more regular swells to the US Pacific Coast) and how coastal development projects over the past years through decades have altered shorelines and wave breaks. Most surfers get to learn the nuances of local bathymetry and seasonal weather patterns over many hours of direct interaction with their environment. By working with this already engaged group (or, more accurately, the many engaged groups across the world), we are confident that we can contribute to the building of momentum that we so badly need in order to forcefully counteract climate change.

We aren't so naïve as to think that this community-building and environmental action will happen automatically, however, nor that surfing alone can save the planet. Instead, we are putting substantial efforts toward these efforts through presentations at local beaches and bars, surf days with our members, and the synthesis and display of Smartfin data for improved dissemination. We are always looking for more teammates around the world to work together with us to collect more data, learn more about our oceans, and help communicate what the vast body of scientific evidence is telling us about the way the globe is changing. To get involved and to sign up for more info, please visit our website smartfin.org and supscience.com/smartfin. We are but a small part of what must become a much larger movement but we hope we can help.

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