How Surfboards and IoT Are Making Waves in Climate Change Research

When Chris Wuethrich and Corine Armstrong paddle out on their surfboards in Pacific Beach, they’re not only catching good waves. They’re also aiding scientific discovery.

Before they go into the water, Wuethrich and Armstrong take their surfboard fins from their battery chargers and place them onto the bottom of their boards. At the beach, they activate their Smartfins, fins equipped with IoT sensors that collect information from the ocean water. While Wuethrich and Armstrong sit in the line-up of surfers waiting for a perfect set, the Smartfin gathers data for scientists to later analyze about the near shore ocean, research that’s increasingly useful to study climate change.

The two surfers are part of what’s known as the Smartfin Project, a study that relies on surfers and their Smartfins to collect data on how seawater chemistry is changing with time.

According to the project’s leaders, the largest impacts of climate change are occurring in the near-shore zone where surfers like Wuethrich and Armstrong hail. With information from their fins, scientists can study everything from sea level rise to the die-off of coral reefs to the violent storms fed by rising temperatures. Smartfin data about the surf will give scientists vital near-shore information researchers haven’t been able to gather in the past.

Rough Surf, Tough Fin

While there are about 70 surfers participating in the pilot project, the team’s scientists and engineers are still working to optimize the fins. Currently, a team of engineers and scientists assemble prototype fins with custom-created sensors they seal by hand.

“They’re our guinea pigs,” Tyler Cyronak, a marine biogeochemist from the University of San Diego explained—that must be able to balance function and form.

surfboard’s fin, which is stuck to the back, bottom portion of the board, keeps the board from moving sideways and, depending on its placement, can add speed and control as the rider hops on the wave. One of the key challenges of the Smartfin project has been to develop a sensory fin that is delicate enough to collect data, but strong enough to withstand the rough and tumble of the surf’s waves—all without compromising the normal function of the fin for the surfer.

“It’s really hard to collect the amount of data we need to study the near shore ocean,” Cyronak said. “We have plenty of data from the open ocean, but sensors and monitors can’t survive inside the surf zone. This is a promising approach to gathering data.”

Yet according to Phil Bresnahan, a senior development engineer at Scripps Institute of Oceanography—one of the leading ocean and climate change research facilities worldwide—the harsh environment isn’t the only obstacle the project’s engineers face.

“The sensors in the current iteration are a small size,” says “The bigger challenge is getting them all to fit together and finding a big enough battery so it can work long enough to last a surf session and send the data without being charged again.”

For Bresnahan, who was recruited to the project about a year ago, this isn’t the first time he’s had to balance form and function. For his doctorate, Bresnahan put IoT sensors on paddle boards to gather data on near shore pH. He recruited high school kids to paddle them around gather data on ocean acidity.

“They were big lunky research sensors, and while they gathered good data, they weren’t practical for gathering the amount of data we need,” Bresnahan said.

“It’s really hard to collect the amount of data we need to study the near shore ocean. We have plenty of data from the open ocean, but sensors and monitors can’t survive inside the surf zone. This is a promising approach to gathering data.”
—Tyler Cyronak, Marine Biogeochemist

For the Smartfin Project, the engineers and scientists have managed to fit what they need into the Smartfins. Inside the 5.5- inch fins is a circuit board with a microcontroller, a rechargeable battery, a GPS device, IoT sensors that capture temperature to the one hundredths of a degree, and motion sensors that gather information on wave energy.

That technology, hand-packed in dense fiber, has been tested a dozen times to make sure it is sealed, functioning, protected, and balanced to do the work of a normal surfboard fin. Once out of the water, surfers use a small Bluetooth chip to send data from the Smartfin to a cloud that’s accessible to the team’s researchers.

It’s this technological collaboration between scientists, engineers, surfers, and manufacturers that is inspiring for the team’s leaders like Bresnahan. “I thought I had left it behind, ” he said of his sensor research. “This project is a dream-come-true. It combines so many things I love doing.”

Rising Temperatures

The Smartfin Project is currently limited to temperature and motion data; however, what they’ve gathered is already set to have an impact on researching the storms ravishing the globe. A key reason has to do with water temperature.

According to Besnahan, water temperature data is important because oceans capture about 90 percent of the excess heat trapped on the planet. While that may seem like it’s good for the land, Bresnahan explained, it has negative impacts on the ocean and dire consequences on the areas vulnerable to ocean storms.

“While you can’t pin any one storm on warming oceans, more energy in the ocean’s surface is going to cause more intense storms,” Bresnahan said. “Temperature changes cause currents to change, and those changes have impacts all over the world.”

Climate change researchers have a never-ending list of questions, and the Smartfin team believes gathering near shore data that’s plentiful, reliable, and robust will help inform how the next generation can better deal with inevitable effects of climate change.

For its next model, Bresnahan and the Smartfin team are working to develop surfboard sensors that measure pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll—vital measures of the health and changes to the ocean. While there are IoT sensors that already complete these tasks, none of them, Bresnahan said, are small enough to maintain the function of the fin.

To develop the future fin, the Smartfin team has partnered with surfboard-maker Future Fins to help with the mold and design. “We get blanks from Futures with cutouts for where the sensors are actually going to go,” he explained. “Our director of manufacturing then lays everything inside and does the [fiber] glassing to seal them up.”

The goal is to have the fins remain reliable for the longhaul.

“All scientists agree that these are the extraordinary issues of our time,” Bresnahan said. “On a community scale, we can actually achieve a far better understanding of this puzzle as we work to put the pieces together.”