Torsten Durkan surfing Nazaré. 2015


The Inertia

The ongoing “War on Science” poses a threat to human progression. Climate change skeptics, evolution deniers, and vaccine haters are a collective product of fear and ignorance that’s directly related to science. “I don’t trust scientists, they get things wrong,” is a go-to phrase for skeptics. And sometimes, yes, scientists don’t know everything in their particular field. The best are usually the first to admit that. But over the course of history, we have accumulated a lot of knowledge through the scientific method. How many technological advances do we rely on every day? We trust cars, cell phones, computers, and airplanes – all of which were created through science – and somehow many people are skeptical about pretty rudimentary ideas like the age and shape of the earth.

For those skeptics who also happen to surf, look no further than your local surf forecast for evidence of how the scientific method is not only vindicated but relevant to your daily habit of riding waves. How do surf forecasters know how big and when a swell will hit, almost to the exact hour? Be it wizardry?! Nay, weather and satellite data (including air temperature, pressure, and wind speed) is fed into numerical simulations run on computers, which crunch the numbers and formulate a model of the atmosphere’s behavior. Forecasters compare that output with weather observations, and if it’s a good match, they use the model to make those simple little predictions that you start planning for two weeks in advance.

Skeptics aside, surfing introduces many people to tons of scientific concepts, which would otherwise be utterly foreign to them. Below are some scientific insights associated with surfing and specific aspects that can be learned through the sport:

Meteorology/Oceanography:

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Those lovely purple blobs are headed straight for Margie's. Photo: Surfline

Those lovely purple blobs are headed straight for Margie’s. Photo: Surfline

No surfer goes a week without checking the surf forecast and invariably learns the nuances associated with weather and marine phenomena.

-Wind speed/direction, wind fetch (surface area of the storm/wind blowing over), wave period (time interval between wave crests), ocean bathymetry, tides, currents, El Niño (warming of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean), hurricanes

Climatology:

Climate change affects every coastline in the world, thereby all surf breaks.

-Greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor) contribute to the warming of the planet and change the pH of the ocean leading to coral bleaching, sea level rise, and erosion.

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Biology:

No matter where you surf, you share the lineup with fellow life forms in their natural habitat.

-Coral reefs (they’re alive), kelp forests, dolphins, whales, sharks, crustaceans, fish, sea otters, sea lions, jellyfish, coastal land species

Anthropology/Geography:

Either through traveling for surf or watching movies and clips, surfers can discover the culture and landscapes of places other than their homeland.

-History, food, linguistics, politics, religion

Health Science:

Zach Weisberg, post-surgery.

Zach Weisberg, Pterygium

Surfing is obviously an outdoor sport. We are exposed to the natural elements and many unnatural elements, including pollution. Surfing also gives insight into how to be healthy too.

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-Pterygium (surfer’s eye), ear canal exostosis (surfer’s ear), skin cancer, hypoxia (lacking oxygen), adrenaline, marine debris (plastics, tires, metals), street/sewage runoff, red tide, stress reduction, cardio, overall athleticism

Physics:

While surfing we interact with the physical universe. Waves are very mathematically complicated and represent a pattern found in almost everything from sound and light to subatomic particles.

-Hydrodynamics (surfboard shape), thermodynamics (heat transfer in water, wetsuits), electromagnetic spectrum (sunsets, rainbows), quantum physics (waves, duh), gravitational force, drag force, buoyancy

Chemistry:

The ocean and materials we use are all possible through chemistry.

-Ocean acidification, solutes, solvents, sunscreens, surfboard materials (foam, resin, neoprene)

Engineering:

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Surf science in progress at Cal State San Marcos. Photo: Cal State University San Marcos

Like all sports, innovation is key in pushing its limits.

-Tow surfing, board shapes, leash design, wetsuits, inflation vests, sunscreen, shark repellants

Psychology:

The popularity of surfing brings all walks of life into the lineup and interactions between them can get interesting.

-Addiction, nonverbal communication, aggression, territoriality, developmental psyche (groms!), spirituality, focus/attention

The myriad examples of science in surfing offers a glimpse into how interconnected we are with the natural world. By embracing these truths and accumulating knowledge we can stand up to bigotry, dogma, and ignorance. Many people say that surfing brings them closer to God, but personally, it brings me closer to physical, tangible realities. These can be discovered, accumulated and analyzed, making life that much more interesting, relevant, fulfilled and worthwhile. I’m not saying skip school and surf by any means but it could be argued that surfing has more to offer as an extracurricular activity than some other mainstram sports. And we have science to thank for that.

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