PML scientists surfing and using the monitoring equipment

Surfing for Science


Scientists investigate using surfers to monitor the coastal environment in an innovative study led by PML.

New paper: On the potential of surfers to monitor environmental indicators in the coastal zone

The coastal zone is hugely valuable in terms of social and economic benefits to humans, and as such is one of our most treasured environments, yet pressures from human activity and climate change are making the future of our coastal shores uncertain.

Monitoring of these areas is fundamental to coastal management. Currently, however, coastal managers lack the information required to develop the understanding needed to enable them to respond to the impacts of phenomena such as climate change. Traditional methods for monitoring the coastal zone can often be challenging, in terms of expense and practicality.

In response to this, a team led by scientists at PML investigated whether sampling coverage of the coastal zone could be improved through harnessing the power of the surfing community. In a pilot study, to prove the method worked, the coastal environment was monitored for one year using temperature sensors and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) attached to surfboards. Now the scientists want to extend the method to more areas and many more surfers. They estimate that UK surfers have the potential to acquire in the region of 40 million independent measurements per year.

Dr Bob Brewin who led the study and a keen surfer said: “We’ve proved this technique can work and is reliable. Our next steps will be to expand the project with more sensors, and more surfers, with the aim to encourage widespread data collection. As sensors get smaller and cheaper, and surfing continues to grow in popularity, we hope to increase the number of ocean variables that can be measured in this way”, and like all good citizen science projects this one is of mutual benefit, “Science gets great data but the surfer also benefits as the data may be used to help protect and monitor conditions at their local surf breaks, as well as providing useful information on surfing performance”, added Dr Brewin.

Now the method has been tried and tested, the scientists are confident  it could be transferable to other recreational water sports. Such a significant level of data collection is likely to be extremely valuable for future monitoring of the coastal zone, working to secure these areas for future generations.

Dr Jamie Shutler, a scientist at the University of Exeter who was also involved in the study added, “whilst we focused on working with surfers for this study, the approach is just as applicable to other pass times like kayaking and sailing. So, in the future it’s possible that many more people will be able to help monitor their local beaches and coastline”.

Images: top right: the data collection equipment used in the study, above left and right: PML scientists being filmed at Bovisand beach, Devon by the BBC One Spotlight team.

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