Earth's oceans remain largely unexplored. But some of the most difficult waters to study aren't in the middle of nowhere, but just off shore, where crashing waves can make data collection dangerous. Engineer Benjamin Thompson thinks he has a solution: water-monitoring surfboard fins.

Above: Board Formula's Smart Phin | Credit: Board Forumla

Thompson's invention, which he calls "Smart Phin," is one of 18 projects currently competing for the $2-million Wendy Schimdt Ocean Health XPRIZE:

[Smart Phin] is the product of a partnership between Thompson's consulting startup, Board Formula, and a small environmental non-profit called the Lost Bird Project. Smart Phin is a surfboard fin equipped with a special sensor that not only tracks a surfer's location, but also measures the temperature, salinity, and acidity of the water to give researchers insight on the impact of climate change over time.

If it works, Board Formula could help turn surfers around the globe into a fleet of citizen scientists, crowdsourcing information on what is, perhaps, Earth's most opaque natural resource.... "Surfers are going in the water everyday. They're in the most critical, hostile zone, and they're doing it willingly, and they're doing it for free," Thompson says. "We're chopping of a whole section of the cost of research, and that could be a real paradigm shift in the way data is collected."

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