Science, Tech & Environment

How he caught the wave ... of predicting surf

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A California wave.

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Photo courtesy of Clark Little Photography

It all begins with a storm — a typhoon sweeping past the Philippines, a tropical cyclone growing near Australia, or a hurricane building along the Mexican coast. These are sources of swell, an undulation that can trundle mile upon mile across the open ocean.

As it approaches shore, wind, bathymetry (the topography of the sea floor) and obstacles such as islands or jutting peninsulas all shape the way the swell transforms into a wave that crashes on the beach.

For surfers, catching a suitable wave was long an exercise in intuition and luck. These days, however, they can tap a suite of tools that help take the guesswork out of the game. In addition to HD cameras now set up at surf spots around the world, there are also websites and apps that cull atmospheric and oceanic data from a variety of sources — including NASA satellites, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) buoys, and wind anemometers — in order to provide timely surf forecasts.

Jake Kean Mayman, who lives in Venice Beach, California, is one surfer who’s found this influx of tools useful. He admits that he’s “kind of gotten addicted” to websites that help decipher all the available data on surf and wind conditions, and to the webcams that reveal the status of his preferred breaks.

For the edge that this technology has given them, surfers like Kean Mayman largely have a surfer named Sean Collins to thank. With only a couple meteorology courses at Long Beach Community College under his belt, but extensive time spent studying the subject on his own, in 1985 Collins was recruited to join Surfline, the nation’s first commercial surf prediction center geared toward surfers.

He grew the company into a global enterprise that provides weather and forecasting services not just to surfers, but to all lifeguard agencies in California, as well as the Coast Guard, US Navy SEALs, the National Weather Service and television and movie production companies, among other entities, according to a profile on Surfline.com about Collins, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 59.

“[Collins] completely changed what it means to be a surfer,” says Chris Dixon, the founding online editor for Surfer magazine who first met Collins in 1996. “Surfers used to be perceived as beach bums because they had to drop everything when waves came. If you were going to be an addicted, devoted surfer, you couldn’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend or a steady job. He made it possible to know when waves were coming and altered the definition of who surfers are.”

Collins grew up in Southern California and started surfing at Seal Beach in Orange County when he was just 8. In those days, the only way for surfers to figure out if a wave was worth the ride was to either test the waters for themselves, or wait for a phone call from friends already scoping the scene, says Dixon, who’s also the author of Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth.

As a teenager, Collins spent time sailing with his father, which buoyed his interest in meteorology, according to his son, AJ Collins. In the 1970s, Collins became engrossed with surf prediction, poring over charts for clues into the nature of swells. “Part of [my father’s] aim was to refine his understanding of his environment,” says 25-year-old AJ.

To hone his formulas, Collins also studied the research of famed physical oceanographer Walter Munk, who pioneered wave prediction techniques to help Allied forces better execute amphibious missions during World War II. And Collins made his own surf observations.

He would sit atop his house in Seal Beach, peering out at the Pacific, according to Dixon. From that vantage point, he’d keep track of how large the waves were, how many arrived in sets, the number of seconds between the waves (called wave period), and the directions from which they were coming, for example. But to really understand why and how the waves arrived when they did, Collins would then compare what he saw on his hometown beach with week-old weather reports from other locales in the Pacific Ocean.

Understanding weather events in far-flung regions was a key step in developing prescient wave models, according to Dixon. “Sean had this amazing ability to take disparate sources of information and turn them into a forecast,” he says.

After informally fielding calls for several years from friends seeking surf tips, Collins realized there was a need and market for forecasting services. That’s when he helped found the first iteration of Surfline, a call-in surf forecasting phone service.

Two years later, Collins left the business and started a rival company, Wavetrack. But he later bought out Surfline and merged the two companies. Surfline’s current home base is fitting: Huntington Beach, California, also known as Surf City, USA.

In 1992, Surfline expanded from providing forecasts by phone to disseminating them via fax to a few spots around Southern California. During that time, Collins and his team relied on weather charts, observational data, wave physics equations, and Collins’ own algorithms to make their predictions. Because of inherent uncertainty in their forecasts, however, “there was a lot of anticipation and a lot of nerves” the night before monster waves had been predicted to arrive, recalls Surfline’s chief meteorologist Mark Willis, who joined the company in 2000.

Still, WaveFax, as the product was known, was a game changer for surfers, according to Dixon. “The copy machine at Surfer would just get burned up with this,” he says. “It’s tough to express how important it was when that WaveFax came in, because that’s how we planned our lives.”

These days, those intermittent faxes are a quaint memory. Now surfers can go to Surfline’s website, which Collins launched in 1995, or open its app and hone in on local conditions — including wave height, wind direction, tide, swell — for 3,690 beaches around the world, from Santa Monica, California, to Skagen, Denmark. With a paid subscription, users can access even more detailed data and get predictions for swells more than two weeks away.

The accuracy of Surfline’s forecasts have improved, too, as a result of advancements in wave modeling techniques, a proliferation of observational ocean data, and importantly, the development of LOLA. That’s the company’s predictive swell-modeling tool, which crunches real-time data on ocean conditions to provide forecasts on weather, surf heights, and wave period, among other things. Collins began developing this proprietary computer program in 1999 with William O’Reilly, an oceanographer with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who continues to work with Surfline as a lead wave modeler.

The data feeding into LOLA comes from myriad sources, including NOAA, offshore buoys, NASA satellites — and Surfline’s nine full-time forecasters. “We basically apply our own secret sauce to make an accurate surf prediction,” says Willis. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the models.” In other words, Willis’ team tweaks the data LOLA’s churning out in order to incorporate local knowledge about the peculiarities of individual surf spots, including expanses of reef, ocean floor depth and features such as islands or offshore canyons. (Not all of the forecasts on Surfline’s website incorporate human wisdom, however. Some are entirely automated.)

Surfline’s forecasters also vet their predictions by cross-checking with other ocean weather tracking systems. For example, Willis recalls a scenario where LOLA was showing 30-foot waves for a swell generated by a storm near Japan and moving toward Hawaii and Micronesia. The team then consulted a NASA satellite — which just so happened to pass over the exact point that LOLA had measured — and observed that waves in the same spot were 35 feet high. Not too shabby, but they corrected their forecast accordingly. “We can adjust a forecast on the fly,” says Willis.

The team can spot-check predictions, too, by inspecting surf conditions on the beach, using their extensive system of HD cameras, the first of which Collins installed about two decades ago. Dixon remembers when Collins sent him a link to view a camera at Huntington Beach. “My jaw hit the floor,” he says. “To be able to look in real-time at the waves at Huntington Beach in the mid- to late-1990s was a complete game changer.”

Surfline operates 210 (and growing) HD cameras spread along coasts across the globe — the largest number of any surf forecasting company. “As the sun starts to come up, we start to look at the cameras and we see how the surf is all up and down the coast,” says Jonathan Warren, another Surfline forecaster. He gets up around dawn so his first surf report of the day for his beaches around Southern California are posted within 20 minutes after sunrise. He checks what the models are saying, then double checks using the HD cameras in order to produce the most accurate rundown of surf conditions.

As a surfer, Warren has a personal stake in ensuring that their models match what’s happening at the beach. “If the surf looks like crap we go back to sleep, but if it looks good, we’ll grab our boards and validate it.”

While Surfline was a pioneer in surf forecasting, it’s not the only game in town. Other surfing organizations and companies also operate HD cameras and offer predictions, many free of charge. Surfer Kean Mayman, for instance, often relies on the cameras operated by SwellMagnet.com, a Southern California-based company. And MagicSeaweed.comSwellinfo.com, and SURFING magazine offer surf predictions, as does Stormsurf.com, which surfer Mark Sponsler founded in the mid-’90s.

“Surfline surely has more competition than they did,” says Dixon, “but I think the reason people still subscribe to them is because their forecasts are generally considered to be the most reliable and definitive.”

A surfer named Adam in northern Los Angeles and Santa Barbara checks Stormsurf and SURFING magazine’s SwellWatch, but he also pays for a subscription to Surfline and has been using the site for the last five years. “I need to know if I need to clear my schedule on Sunday and blow everything off,” he says.

Despite the appeal of available data and HD cameras, however, some surfers scoff at the idea of relying on a website or an app. Surfing “takes it roots really seriously, [and] it is always striving for this romantic notion of the past,” says surfer Kean Mayman. “And that’s why you hear people criticize the fact that we do have too many technology options.”

Meanwhile, AJ Collins, who is a competitive surfer himself, sees all surfers as data collectors in their own way. “Some people collect data just by looking at the ocean. Some people collect data by looking at the data itself,” he says. Ultimately, “each surfer has their unique connection with the ocean.”

This story first aired as an interview on Science Friday with Ira Flatow.