An interview with Andy Stern, founder of Smartfin technology
Some people retire to play golf, sail the Caribbean, bird watch or travel.
Andy Stern did something different. He decided to tackle climate change.
A professor of neurology for 30 years, Dr. Stern founded The Lost Bird Project, a nonprofit whose mission is connecting more deeply to the earth through art.
Our belief is that art can touch each of us in a way that ideas and intellect alone cannot. At their highest levels, the performing arts and the visual arts have the power to ignite an awareness of deep connectedness. While we do not advocate for any specific actions, our hope is that, by raising this awareness, each of us will hear and respond to our own unique calling to engage with the shift toward a better relationship with the earth.
Extinction – Past, Present and Future
The Lost Bird Project initially began as a memorial project illuminating five extinct birds – the Great Auk, Labrador Duck, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen – to illustrate how many more species can disappear.
Since then, it has produced a film Elephant Path – Njaia Njoku, documenting two critical years in the lives of one of the last wild herds of Forest Elephants, 26 of which were killed by rebels to turn ivory into weapons of war.
It’s most ambitious initiative is a new technology, Smartfin. It’s a surfboard with sensors that measure multiple ocean conditions including salinity, pH, temperature, GPS location, and wave characteristics, and for future development, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll,
Beyond masterminding the technology, Stern is mobilizing a growing army of surfers who are riding the waves- collecting all this data in real time and transmitting them to scientists around the world for analysis.
One of his biggest allies is the Surfrider Foundation, whose website explains to its members: Using the data collected by Smartfin, we will be able to better understand trends in ocean warming and acidification and mobilize our communities to take action to combat these problems caused by climate change.
“Nearly half of humanity lives on the coasts, yet we are missing important near-shore data due to the difficulty of placing sensors in the relatively harsh surf zone,” says Stern. That’s where Smartfin makes a difference.
Stern recently visited the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to share the Smartfin project and recruit local surfers.
What inspired you to walk away from your career as a neurologist to tackle a challenge in an area where you have little expertise and experience – and to do so at a time when most people your age are retiring?
I kept confronting questions that demanded my response: What is going to happen to my children and grandchildren? How am I going to live my day in a meaningful way?
Seven years ago, I read a book called EEARTH by Bill McKibben, and it changed my life. The title is intentionally misspelled to symbolize the fact that the Earth as we know it will never be the same. From the moment I turned the last page, I could feel the rumble of the tracks of the freight train of climate change on the way, and I decided literally in that moment to devote myself to spreading the word.
What struck me as difficult to understand was why, after 30 years of knowing full well that climate change posed a devastating threat to the planet and to human health, and after 30 years of knowing exactly what needed to be done – leaving fossil fuels in the ground – we still have not managed any meaningful response. Why?
Smartfin is one of infinite ways to contribute to addressing these questions. If I can do something, why can’t everybody?
Why do you think it’s so difficult for people and politicians to find consensus around the threats of climate change?
There have been a ton of articles and books on this fascinating and important question, and the answer bores deeply into other questions like what, as humans, do we really value and what does it mean to live lives of meaning.
One common answer is that our evolutionary brain has conditioned us to be alarmed by things that are sudden, pose an immediate threat to ourselves and have a clear perpetrator – like a tiger charging. But not so much to the very gradual things that are not immediate threats and have no clear perpetrator, like climate change.
But, one way to think about that “why” is that we have become so deeply disconnected from nature that climate change just doesn’t feel like it matters all that much. Everything we touch, use, hear – and everything we see except the stars – is earth. And while that is totally obvious, it is not in our daily awareness. So that is why Lost Bird’s mission is to connect more deeply to the earth.
That’s why I like coming to places like Cape Cod. Here there is local awareness and growing concerns mostly about sea level rise impacting infrastructure and salt water intrusion. Surfers are among the most sensitive communities when it comes to climate change. They see its impact every day.
What findings and applications can derive from Smartfin?
There are many. Key ones include:
- Climate change and ocean acidification in near-shore environments
- Fish and shellfish yields that are in decline
- Algal blooms that poison drinking water and marine life
- Changes in the coastal ecosystem health in areas near desalinization and power plants
- Coral reef bleaching and declining coral ecosystem health
- Heat exchange, energy dissipation and gas exchange associated with breaking waves
How did Smartfin emerge from Lost Bird’s commitment to art and the environment?
I am always on the lookout for cool ways to present the environmental challenges of today – not so much to present information, but more to touch hearts and souls. It’s not easy nowadays to talk about climate change in ways that are not tiresome or depressing. But that is exactly what Lost Bird aims to do.
I came across an article by Ben Horton, professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research is determining sea levels for the last 2,000 years. I emailed him, and he recommended I talk to surfers because they know the oceans so intimately and would be aware of the threats and changes taking place.
I ended up meeting Benjamin Thompson, a San Diego-based engineer who has been putting sensors on surfboards to measure the physical characteristics of the board because he wanted to help make them better. He measured flex and other parameters with a big boxy device attached to the top of the surfboard.
Four years and a team of 30 engineers – some surfers themselves – produced the Smartfin prototype.
Right now, we are scaling up to manufacturing. We now have nearly 100 fins collecting data, mostly in San Diego, but also some in England with a scientific team studying coastal ecology.
We have the capacity now to make about 25 fins a month or 300 a year, but that will shortly increase.
We will be distributing Smartfins to Surfrider Foundation chapters because they are organized as local communities, and it is my belief that the initiatives that will have a real impact on our response to climate change will come from communities.
But, we will also consider other potential partners. Maybe, the museum wants to mobilize Smartfins on the Cape and collaborate with local surfers through surf shops – or even the Cape Cod National Seashore, whose scientists are engaged in climate change study.
What’s your dream for Smartfin?
We plan to expand it globally and have begun a fundraising campaign.
We want to create a tribe of surfers and non-surfers worldwide committed to truly meaningful climate change mitigation. Then, 100 years from now when our descendants, while enjoying the breathtakingly beautiful natural world that we have the great fortune to enjoy today, they will have huge gratitude to the surfers of today who will have spearheaded the transformation to carbon neutrality globally.
In their gratitude they will have reestablished the custom from ancient Polynesia where surfing was born, that all of the leaders of tomorrow will always have the credential of being the best surfer in their community!!!
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