f 10 Questions for Professor Toby Garfield - Campus Beat - SF State Magazine Spring/Summer 2011

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Campus Beat

10 Questions

for Professor Toby Garfield, director of SF State's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies


Photo of Toby Garfield, director of the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, who says  RTC's new Bay Currents app will be available in June at the iTunes Store.RTC's new Bay Currents app will be available in June at the iTunes store

The Romberg Tiburon Center monitors the direction of offshore currents from Point Reyes down to Pillar Point plus San Francisco Bay. How do you measure this?

It's similar to police radar -- we have shore-based antennas along the coast that send out radio signals that are reflected back by ocean waves. By measuring the theoretical Doppler shift of the return frequency, we get an accurate picture of real-time coastal currents.


With the America's Cup coming to San Francisco in 2013, how could the information about the Bay waters in particular be helpful to racing teams?

Competitors going into this race on the Bay will want to know every bit of information they can about the winds, the tides and the currents.


You have a new app to assist America's Cup sailors. What does it do?

With the app installed on a smart phone (iPhone or IPad), any sailor on the Bay will have their GPS position located and will see the surface currents in the Central Bay. The app offers information on the previous 24 hours of currents plus a projection of what the currents will be for the next two hours.


Why is real-time information so important in these waters?
San Francisco Bay is the second largest estuary in the United States and it's the largest estuary on the West Coast. It has very strong currents, probably the strongest currents on the California Coast, so if you're out as a sailor, both from a safety point of view as well as being able to really figure out the best route to your destination, it's good to know the currents.


How is information on Bay currents gathered now?
There are different companies that package the data and estimate currents based on the stage of the tide, the height of the tide, whether it's rising or falling. Generally they offer just a few arrows for the whole Bay but they wouldn't have it mapped out the way we've done it. We show changes between distances as short as 400 meters.


The America's Cup is generally an open water race, how will racing within the Bay change things?

It's going to be entirely different from previous races. The next America's Cup is being designed for spectators and you'll have boats going about twice the speed of the wind, so if you have 15 knots of wind, these boats will go about 30 knots. It's going to take about eight minutes to go from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge. These guys are going to be moving and doing the whole thing in a context designed for TV. It's going to be wild.


Your research focuses on ocean current circulation. What sparked that interest?

My grandparents had a summer house on a small island off Cape Cod and my father was an avid sailor. I spent plenty of time sailing with my family. When I went to college I was planning on being a math major and then tried history before I found geology, which combined the two, and eventually I realized that oceanography was where I wanted to be.


What's the most unusual request you've received for your expertise?

I've been asked about missing people, swamped boats, oil spills and sewage discharges, but the most unusual was a police department request for where a suitcase filled with a body might end up given a specific place where it had been thrown in the water. I've actually had two of those requests.


Knowing what you know about the waters around Alcatraz, do you have an opinion on whether Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers made it to shore?

I have no doubt that with the proper preparation and timing the tide correctly, they would have had no trouble making it ashore. The big issue would have been figuring out how to stay warm enough.


What are you most proud of at RTC?
The research and the education that goes on here is really exciting. We're exploring ecosystem science in the delta, the restoration of wetlands, invasive species and we're also sending scientists all over the world. Over the last 15 years, RTC went from only one or two teaching faculty to six, and we have about 35 graduate students full time doing their research. We also offer a lot of classes. By accident of nature or history, RTC is the only university educational research facility on the Bay so there are terrific opportunities here.


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