How teams in The Ocean Race are helping to grow understanding of the seas

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Anne-Cécile Turner, sustainability director at The Ocean Race, explains how the round-the-world sailing contest is helping to further scientific understanding of the impact of climate change and microplastic pollution in our seas.

We call the boats competing in The Ocean Race ‘vessels of opportunity’, because as they race across the planet they have the unique chance to fulfil another important role: the collection of valuable data about the state of the seas.

While they circumnavigate the globe, teams measure a range of variables to help provide insights on climate change and microplastic pollution – two of the biggest threats to the ocean – along with weather patterns.

This data collection, part of our pioneering science programme, was launched during the 2017/18 edition of our race. The seven competing boats deployed drifter buoys to capture data on currents, sea surface temperature and the climate. The data, which continues to be transmitted five years later, is shared with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Global Drifter Program, and is not only useful in the short term for predicting intensifying storms and extreme weather events, it also helps in the understanding of longer-term trends and changes.

During the race some of the boats captured samples of microplastic pollution and the findings were startling. Microplastics were found to be widespread, even in the most remote locations on the planet, such as Point Nemo in the Southern Ocean, where the nearest humans are on the International Space Station.

Reaching these far-flung locations is one of the unparalleled benefits of our science programme. As the boats race through corners of the world that are largely inaccessible to research boats they are able to gather data in areas where little or no statistics exist. By supplying this data to the science organisations that are studying and mapping ocean threats we are able to help fill their critical knowledge gaps.

Increasing understanding of our amazing ocean and the pressures it is under is essential, as the more is known about the state of the seas the better placed governments and organisations are to take action to protect them.

The 14th edition of the race will start in January 2023, with two racing fleets (IMOCAs and VO65s) taking on a 32,000 nautical mile (60,000 km) lap of the world. The new race route will include the longest leg in the race’s 50-year history through the Southern Ocean. This provides a fantastic opportunity to gather data in this isolated region. These waters are critical for the world’s climate and are a significant buffer of climate change, so data here is crucial in order to better understand the impact that climate change is having on the planet and predict what might happen in the future.

This is one of the most exciting aspects for me: the opportunity to add real value and directly support ocean health through our work. Unique partnerships with the science community are at the heart of this. We work with world-leading ocean research organisations, such as GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and EuroSea, and are supported by UNESCO-IOC who are working with us to ensure the data collected helps to advance ocean research with the support of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

The data contributes to the IOC-led Global Ocean Observing System, as well as the Surface Ocean Carbon Dioxide Atlas (SOCAT), which feeds into the Global Carbon Budget, which is a yearly assessment of CO2 that informs targets and predictions for carbon reduction. It is vital that scientists understand the levels of CO2 in the ocean to form an accurate budget and keep the world on track to stay within the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to below 1.5°C.

Our data has also been used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose reports provide the world’s most comprehensive snapshot of the state of the climate and were used as the basis for climate negotiations at Cop26.

Combining competitive racing and science is a key part of our Racing with Purpose sustainability programme, which was developed in collaboration with 11th Hour Racing, a premier partner of The Ocean Race. Reducing our impact is a core part of the programme, but equally important is finding innovative ways to maximise our platform and drive action to protect and restore the seas.

The science programme can only be successful with the support of teams. During the inaugural edition of The Ocean Race Europe last summer, several teams stepped up to carry scientific equipment on board as they raced from Lorient in France to Genova, Italy, as well as during the prologue event in northern Europe.

Teams are also encouraged to use the science equipment outside of races. Data collected by the 11th Hour Racing Team during a transatlantic crossing last year features in the 2021 SOCAT database, with an explicit mention of the team’s contribution.

We are also looking for ways to evolve our science programme and make it of even greater value. While we measured microplastics in the last edition of the round-the-world race in 2017/18, in The Ocean Race Europe we sought to go a step further and discover more about where they originated from. GEOMAR and Utrecht University analysed the samples and were surprised to find the major component of these microplastics to be microfibres. Previous research has typically focused on detecting fragments, rather than fibres – tiny strands of plastic that enter the environment from manufacturing, washing and wearing synthetic clothes. They also originate from car tyres, ending up in the sea after heavy rain and run-off, and fragmented fishing gear and lines.

This finding was significant, as previous research has focused on microplastic particles, which are from the degradation of larger plastic items such as plastic bottles, packaging and microbeads in toiletries, and have largely been considered the major source of microplastic pollution.

In our next race we are hoping to expand the collaboration between science and sailing even further. We will also continue to use the opportunity that our science programme provides to help raise awareness of the problems plaguing our seas and just how vital a healthy ocean is to all life on earth.