The Smartfin Project is an innovative program helping researchers fill gaps in ocean data so they can learn more about the effects of climate change on our world’s coastal ecosystems.


Surfer becomes scientist.

The Ocean is the most critical part of Earth’s environmental system; a vast, durable resource to humanity, but also a finite and fragile one. Since the Industrial Revolution (with the advent of fossil fuels) our planet has been on a warming trend. The Ocean has absorbed 90% of that excess heat and, according to NASA, 50% of the excess carbon-dioxide humans have released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels for energy. This constant uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is causing the ph levels of the Earth’s oceans to decrease and thus become more acidic (ocean acidification).As carbon dioxide dissolves into the sea, becoming more acidic, this process also binds up carbonate ions and makes them less abundant—ions that coral, oysters, clams, mussels, starfish and other shelled organisms use to build shells and skeletons. According to the Smithsonian Institute, “in the past 200 years, ocean water has become 30% more acidic (faster than any known change in ocean chemistry in the last 50 million years).” Scientist around the globe think that how the Ocean reacts to the continued onslaught of heat and carbon-dioxide will determine how Earth will respond to climate change—and this greatly affects the future of us all.

According to the National Climate Assessment Reports some of the future effects of global climate change on the United States are as follows:

  • Change will continue through this century and beyond
  • Temperatures will continue to rise
  • Frost-free season (and growing season) will lengthen
  • Changes in precipitation patterns
  • More droughts and heat-waves
  • Hurricanes will become stronger and more intense
  • Sea level will rise 1-4 feet by the year 2100

With nearly 40% of the world’s human population living within sixty miles of the Ocean, the impacts of sea warming (sea level rise, ocean acidification, intense storms, coastal erosion) can be catastrophic. An estimated 3.5 billion people are reliant on the Ocean as their primary source of food. Coral reefs around the world are home to over 100,000 species of fish.

Phytoplankton (microscopic single-celled marine animals) are drastically affected by changing ocean conditions, they also serve as the base of the oceanic food chain plus provide us with 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Tiny plant-like animals called, zooxanthellae (zooplankton) live inside the shells of coral reefs and other marine animals, these photosynthetic algae convert sunlight to energy, providing essential nutrients to corals. If the ocean gets too warm these algae cannot efficiently convert the sun’s energy; they instead produce toxins. The coral is forced to expel the algae in order to survive the temperature stress: coral bleaching.  The entire oceanic food chain is affected.

Surfing for Science and Performance

Figuring out a way to combat climate change is a big challenge, scientists must first collect ocean data to better understand the changing chemistry of seawater. The Smartfin is a surfboard fin currently equipped with sensors to measure ocean temperature, location (GPS) and motion (wave characteristics). Developed by a team of engineers, led by Dr. Phil Bresnahan (@supscientist), at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UC San Diego, the Smartfin will soon have sensors to measure ph (ocean acidity), dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll. The Surfers surf the Smartfin and upload data to the researchers at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.  The data is then shared with oceanographers and climate change scientists worldwide.

(1)Futures Control Series; (2)The Smartfin; (3)Mitch Coleburn Signature Model

The Smartfin was shaped by the world’s leading fin manufacturer, Futures Fins (@futuresfins) and is similar size, weight, rake of its other surfboard fins so volunteers sacrifice nothing in the way of performance. The Smartfin Program (@smartfinproject) is supported by the Surfrider Foundation (@surfrider), a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches. The Smartfin is surfed by people like me.


“The Ocean is my place of refuge. It connects me; reminds me that so many people are trying to get to Heaven but the Earth is already in space, and the Ocean is here sustaining life. It makes me think about the cycle of the moon and the swinging tides and about a star exploding billions of years ago and density stratification and what a miracle life is. And that life was born out of the Sea.

The issues threatening the Ocean from plastics pollution, over-fishing, the culling of predators, offshore drilling to global climate change and the way it affects interconnected ecosystems are all concerning to me.

If doing what I love (surfing) and being where I love to be (in the Sea) can contribute toward scientific research with the ultimate goal of Ocean conservation, then I’m stoked to be doing it.

Surfing for Science.  Surfing to create awareness and change.  Surfing gives my life both joy and meaning. The Smartfin Project is a joy that gives my surfing meaning. Rad.”

– David Walden, Smartfin Committee Member,
Surfrider San Diego Chapter (San Diego, CA)

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