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Scripps Turns To Surfers For Ocean Data

Smartfins, designed to fit on surfboards and capture ocean data, in an undate...

Credit: Smartfin

Above: Smartfins, designed to fit on surfboards and capture ocean data, in an undated photo.

Scripps Turns To Surfers For Ocean Data


Andy Stern, founder, Smartfin

Tyler Cyronak, postdoctoral researcher, Scripps Institution of Oceanography


A citizen science project in development for four years is hitting San Diego's beaches this week, as researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography reach out to surfers to gather data about the region's coastal waters.

Oceans absorb some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which makes the water more acidic. Climate scientists are interested in tracking oceans' changing acidity, but it can be difficult to gather data close to shore, where expensive measurement devices can get moved or damaged by waves.

Retired neurology professor Andy Stern founded the nonprofit Smartfin to close that data gap, collaborating with scientists at Scripps and surfboard fin manufacturer Futures Fins to design a fin with a built in sensor to measure water temperature and acidity. Surfers can upload the data gathered while in the ocean through a smartphone app.

Smartfin is distributing several dozen of the fins to members of the San Diego County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation Wednesday, with plans to reach out to other chapters through 2018. It will also give out the devices, which are worth about $325, to scientists around the world by request. The scientists and San Diego surfers will not have to pay for the devices, according to Stern, who said Smartfin is supported by grants, donations and corporate sponsorship.

"Smartfin will never be for sale and never found in a surf shop on the shelf next to another fin — it is a research tool, and actually won’t be owned by anyone," he said. "Scientists will always get them for no charge, and the data gathered will be open-sourced — no charge."

The project is featured on the latest episode of the PBS series "The Crowd and the Cloud," which will air on KPBS-TV Wednesday at 11 p.m.

Stern and Scripps postdoctoral researcher Tyler Cyronak join KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday with more on what scientists hope to learn from Smartfin's data.

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