PODCAST: A computer model of Pipeline could offer clues about climate change

Pipeline is one of the world’s most valuable waves. It’s an economic driver, but it’s also one of the most dangerous surf breaks on earth.
Published: Dec. 14, 2021 at 4:54 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 4, 2022 at 2:25 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Pipeline is one of the world’s most valuable surf breaks.

It’s an economic driver for the surfing industry. But because of its reef structure, it’s also one of the most dangerous places to surf on Earth.

Now it’s ground zero for a unique science project.

“With ocean acidification, we want to make sure that this reef isn’t changing in a negative manner and that which may cause the wave to change a little bit,” marine scientist John Burns said.

Burns founded the MEGA Lab at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.

Recently, he teamed up with pro surfer and marine scientist Cliff Kapono to map a section of Pipeline’s reef that creates the surf spot’s iconic waves.

“As far as we know it’s the first time we’ve done photogrammetry, three-dimensional modeling of a famous surf wave, specifically Pipe,” Kapono said.

Armed with an underwater camera, the pair swam back and forth over the reef, taking hundreds of over-lapping photographs.

Using a computer, the MEGA Lab’s Kailey Pascoe converted the images into a detailed 3D model that shows every angle of the reef, down to its shallow channels and jagged edges. .

Burns said it will serve as a baseline to track impacts on the reef.

“Ultimately, doing this which nobody has done on these reef breaks where these famous waves are, we can see not just how the reef makes the wave tick but how is the reef responding to climate change,” Burns said.

“We just wanted to celebrate it and honor it in a way hopefully that can help protect it in the future,” Kapono said.

To build an accurate three-dimensional representation, the photos needed to be taken during a swell while the reef was clear of sand.

“We had to go when it was pumping,” Kapono said. “I don’t think many people are super keen to get out there and do science when guys are surfing.”

The Pipeline project is just getting started. Kapono and Burns plan to map more sections of the reef.

“Now that we know what’s possible we’re just going to keep going and build the pieces of the puzzle together til we have the whole reef reconstructed.” Burns said.

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