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Surfing For Science: A New Way To Gather Data For Ocean And Coastal Research


Scientists are always looking for new ways to get data. That's especially true for ocean and coastal research where the sheer scale and environmental challenges can be overwhelming. NPR's Nathan Rott spent some time with a researcher who's pushing a novel way to get more data sensors in the water by giving them to the people who seek out some of the wildest parts of the ocean - surfers.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: You know you're in for a good day of reporting when the person you're interviewing directs you to meet him on a sandy beach north of San Diego and to bring your surfboard.

You must be Phil.


ROTT: What's up?

Dr. Phil Bresnahan is that interviewee. He's an oceanographer with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

BRESNAHAN: Good to meet you.

ROTT: Good to meet you, too.

He's wearing a wet suit, his surfboard at his feet, and he's holding the reason that we're both here - a surfboard fin no thicker than a quarter that is packed with technology.

BRESNAHAN: So this is it. We have two different versions. We have a longboard version, single fin, and then short board side fin.

ROTT: Now, these fins, for those who don't surf, are what go under the back of a board. They're shaped like a shark's dorsal fin and help give a surfboard stability as it's cutting across a wave. Only this fin - the smartfin, as they call it - does more than that. It also records second-by-second data.

BRESNAHAN: Temperature and motion.

ROTT: As in temperature of the water around the fin and motion or orientation of the board once it's slid into the fin box and secured...

BRESNAHAN: All right.

ROTT: ...And turned on by three taps to the side of the board.

BRESNAHAN: So one, two, three.

ROTT: Oh, yeah.

BRESNAHAN: And it's on.

ROTT: OK, so why should you care? As Bresnahan points out, buoys across the ocean already give us information about waves and currents. Satellites already provide us incredible measurements of the ocean's temperature from space. That's all great, Bresnahan says.

BRESNAHAN: But getting smaller resolution, finer resolution on temperature data can be really tricky 'cause it means putting a lot of sensors out.

ROTT: And that finer data could be hugely helpful in understanding global issues like climate change or coral reef die-offs, a result of marine heat waves. The problem is coral reefs and coasts, shallow areas...

BRESNAHAN: Those can be the most dynamic and essentially violent places to put sensors.

ROTT: So instead, Bresnahan says, the idea is to put the sensors on the boards of people who seek out that madness, recording site-specific information that gets uploaded to your phone and a database using Bluetooth when you're out of the water that oceanographers can later pore over. They've given out more than 200 of these fins so far with the hope of putting out many more. But right now, a big set of waves is coming through. So...

BRESNAHAN: You going to surf?

ROTT: Yeah, let's surf.

BRESNAHAN: All right.

ROTT: ...Priorities. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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