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Aug 27, 2018 2:14 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Surfboard Fin Can Help Scientists Study The Effects Of Climate Change

Colleen Henn, the Eastern Long Island Chapter coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation, shows off her Smartfin on Thursday evening at the Grey Lady in Montauk.  ELIZABETH VESPE
Aug 28, 2018 1:06 PM

Local surfers missed out on what some called a “perfect surf session” on Thursday evening, August 23, to learn about a new technology, called Smartfin, that aids scientists in better understanding coastal waters and the effects of climate change.

The Explorers Club at the Beach held the second-to-last installment of this summer’s Sunset Speaker Series with Dr. Andy Stern, the founder of Smartfin, Colleen Henn of the Surfrider Foundation, and professional surfer Will Skudin at the Grey Lady in Montauk Harbor to a packed room of sun-kissed, citizen-scientist surfers of various ages.

Smartfin is a surfboard fin with blinking sensors that measures ocean parameters, including temperature, location and wave characteristics. According to Dr. Stern, the Smartfin can connect surfers and their communities in real time to larger issues affecting the ocean. With the information collected from the Smartfin, scientists can get a better handle on trends in the ocean’s warming and acidification, and mobilize coastal beach communities to take action to combat the problems that climate change creates.

The Smartfins are being distributed through the Surfrider Foundation, and will not be sold in stores to individuals. “The Smartfin will never be in a surf shop. It is a scientific tool,” Dr. Stern said. “Surfers using the fin will get to make a contribution to the ocean.”

Dr. Stern said a new version will be coming out in October, and that the plan is to distribute 50 fins per month. Surfers will be able to sign up for the Smartfin program via the Surfrider Foundation, he said.

Scientists are working to develop sensors within the next year to measure pH, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll, according to Dr. Stern. Using an app on their phones, surfers can acquire this data from the Smartfin, and the information becomes almost instantly accessible to the worldwide scientific community.

Recently retired from his neurology practice of 30 years, Dr. Stern is the founder of Smartfin, an initiative of an arts-based environmental nonprofit organization called Lost Bird.

“I want to do what I can to initiate meaningful climate mitigation,” he said while introducing his technology, which is currently being tested by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Dr. Stern imagines a data-collecting device that would turn surfers into what he refers to as “citizen scientists,” with the help of San Diego-based engineers. Approximately 100 Smartfins are already collecting data in San Diego, and 150 elsewhere in the world.

“The data scientists have of the ocean mostly consists of the open ocean, but most of us live on the coasts,” Dr. Stern explained. “Before, the only way you’d gather these coastal ocean parameters was through a sensor on a buoy, or on a pier. You’d have nothing in a special distribution,” he said.

“We can now dissect all of this information about wave patterns from surfers using the Smartfin,” he added. “The scientific community has not been able to collect this kind of information before.”

Fins are in the process of being developed for stand-up paddleboards, because scientists want data from inlets and harbors where there is no surf, Dr. Stern said.

Colleen Henn, the local organizer of the Surfrider Foundation and a surfer herself, has been using her Smartfin in Montauk’s waters, and while on vacation in Puerto Rico. Through Ms. Henn, scientists have been able to gather information about Montauk’s coastal waters that they were unable to gather before. She is the only Montauk resident with a Smartfin at the moment, also using it while on vacation in Puerto Rico, but hopes to be able to get other people involved in using the fins.

“The surfing community will definitely do what it can to help gain new information to benefit our ocean,” promised Mr. Skudin, a professional surfer who lives in Long Beach.

The organizer of last week’s event, the Explorers Club at the Beach is an international professional society that specializes in field research. The next talk, and the last of the season, will be by Ryan Chadwick, an entrepreneur and restaurateur, who is pressing people to eat lionfish as a way to control the problem of the fish preying on native species in places like the Bahamas. The event starts at 5 p.m. on Thursday, August 30; registration is by email to reservations@explorers.org or by calling 212-628-8383.

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Are smartfins, surfboards, wax, stickers, leashes, traction pads biodegradable?
By lirider (284), Hampton Bays on Aug 28, 18 8:40 AM
a weak attempt to start a stupid argument.
By adlkjd923ilifmac.aladfksdurwp (736), southampton on Aug 28, 18 9:30 AM
Just don't claim to be a steward of the environment while you hop on a jet plane to go surf in Puerto Rico. There's no carbon footprint in anything they do? It's just gathering data, not accomplishing anything. The hypocrisy is the only thing I'm pointing out. What is your point?
By lirider (284), Hampton Bays on Aug 28, 18 10:52 AM
Lirider, the Surfrider Foundation does a lot for the environment. You should strongly consider supporting them!

God bless them an the Eastern Chapter for helping to keep our beaches an waters free of garbage.
By toes in the water (881), southampton on Aug 29, 18 6:52 AM
Sounds like someone tried surfing once and fell down.
By johnj (1017), Westhampton on Aug 29, 18 10:02 AM
What are you supposed to do? Swim to PR? Everyone has a carbon footprint, bravo for these people for raising awareness. I’m surf your surfboard is made out of drift wood and your wetsuit made from native plants. To the data issue, how do you know it’s not accomplishing anything? Fill us in.
By Fred s (3036), Southampton on Aug 28, 18 11:08 AM
1 member liked this comment
All I'm saying is that it studies wave patterns? Surfline can predict a swell five days out. PREDICT. NOAA will tell you if you need to get those sandbags two weeks before a storm. Sandy happened a couple of years ago...eh let's just delete the data. Introducing heavy metals and toxic circuit boards to an already "forever on this earth" fin I think is kind of naive to something that's supposed to analyze climate change. Better off encouraging the plant based resins and foams they are trying to ...more
By lirider (284), Hampton Bays on Aug 29, 18 9:06 PM
If you read the article you would have seen that the data being collected is coastal, NOAA collects mostly open ocean data so there is value in additional data points previously not collected. They are also developing fins for paddle boards to collect data in harbors and inlets.

So while it might not be making as big a impact on climate change as I'm sure we'd all like, collecting as many data points as possible, especially on Long Island, will help us better understand the local changes ...more
By Enviro Guy (44), Southampton on Sep 4, 18 3:50 PM
I understand your point and while data collection is great how about a case for prevention? Collecting data and then sending a .pdf to a polluter to tell him to stop won't do much. Lobbying state officials would do more. What about when there are no waves? You won't find many surfers out when it's flat. I know I'm being negative but I'm skeptical. Are they really free or is there a hidden agenda ie. big business.
By lirider (284), Hampton Bays on Sep 7, 18 4:15 AM
The plane is going to PR whether they are on it or not,
By bigfresh (4552), north sea on Aug 28, 18 2:00 PM
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