Surfers help scientists study changing ocean temperatures by catching waves with a ‘Smartfin’

A lot of that heat ends up getting trapped in the ocean, which means water temperatures are also on the rise.
Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 9:00 AM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - New data shows the last seven years were the warmest on record for our planet.

“We understand the greenhouse effect really well. We put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through driving our cars and the way we produce our energy and everything — that’s trapping more heat on the planet as a whole,” said Phil Bresnahan, an assistant professor of earth and ocean sciences at UNCW.

A lot of that heat ends up getting trapped in the ocean, which means water temperatures are also on the rise. In fact, 2021 was the hottest on record for the world’s oceans for the third year in a row.

“We’re just seeing these records get smashed year after year after year,” Bresnahan said. “One of the realities is that what is now a record isn’t going to be remembered as a record for all that long. We’re going to break the records that we broke last year over and over and over again in the coming years.”

While Bresnahan teaches at UNCW, he also helped lead research and development for The Smartfin Project.

The ‘Smartfin’ is a surfboard fin that is equipped with sensors. The fin has a thermometer as well as a GPS so that it can track water temperatures in real time during each surf session.

All the surfer needs to do is keep the fin charged and catch some waves.

“They’ll be contributing to scientific data collection and trying to understand our coastal oceans better, which is really helpful to us as scientists,” Bresnahan said. “We also hope that it will help the surfers themselves understand the conditions in which they’re surfing.”

More than 300 of these fins have surfed swells around the world. All of that data, in turn, helps scientists understand how climate change is impacting our oceans and, ultimately, our coastal communities. It’s the first step in finding a way to reverse climate change, according to the non-profit’s website.

The research is more important now than ever as global temperatures and ocean temperatures continue to break records. A warmer planet, along with warmer oceans, leads to more extreme weather, rising sea levels, more frequent coastal flooding, and stronger storms, according to Bresnahan.

“Heat to a hurricane is fuel,” Bresnahan said. “Every time we add more energy to the ocean system — it’s kind of like the equivalent of giving a shot of steroids to a baseball player. They’re not necessarily going to get more hits, but when they do get hits they’re going to get more home runs. So we might not necessarily see more landfalls in Southeastern North Carolina, but when we do they’re going to be stronger storms. They’re going to intensify more rapidly and they’re going to cause more damage to property and, unfortunately, human life.”

Eventually, the non-profit also hopes to add water quality sensors to the ‘Smartfin’ to find out even more about how coastal oceans are changing.

In the short term, The Smartfin Project is looking for its next funding source. The fins are not cheap — it costs around $200 to make one.

Like most companies, the non-profit is also facing supply chain issues. The ‘Smartfin’ needs the same chips that are found in cars and cell phones, which are currently in short supply.

Even if you don’t ride the waves, Bresnahan said there are still things you can do to help like beach cleanups or wasting less food at home.

Because ultimately, “It’s really a human issue. We’re talking about floods and severe storms and tornados that are impacting humans and human life and there’s a way around that. We can make human life safer and healthier and better for people,” he said.

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