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The Science of Surf

Wave Prediction Data Gathered in WWII Revolutionized the Sport of Surfing


On a clear Sunday afternoon, in the Moby Dick restaurant atop Stearns Wharf, Peter Neushul — a lecturer in UCSB’s History Department — talked to an audience about how the study of waves revolutionized the sport of surfing.

According to Neushul, interest in predicting the behavior of waves long predated the desire to find where the best surf was rolling in. During World War II, the United States faced many challenges in successfully executing their amphibious assaults on European coastlines, as well as in operations during the Pacific campaign. Of particular importance to this effort were the oceanographers Taylor Munk from Austria, and Harald Sverdrup from Norway. Together they developed sophisticated methods and strategies to measure waves and predict when and where they would be.

Due to the irregular shape of the landing craft soldiers invaded beaches with — they were flat-bottomed and, instead of a normal bow, often had front ramps capable of being lowered —disagreeable wave conditions could lead to disastrous effects. “With big waves, everyone dies,” said Neushul. During the Pacific campaign, when U.S. soldiers had to navigate the coral reefs at Peleliu, Munk, and Sverdrup, the need for aerial and coastal data arose so invasions could be timed properly.

Today, there are many centers that provide data about waves on the Internet — for example, the Army Corps of Engineers Harvest Buoy. Access to this information “became a commercial phenomenon” with the advent of Surfline.com, which — founded by Sean Collins — started originally as a phone service providing long-range surf forecasts for Southern California and the Baja California peninsula.

The UCSB History Associates sponsored the talk by Neushul, whose research interests include the military industrial complex and the history of American technology.

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