How a sailing race is helping to explain the effect of the climate crisis on the oceans

By Simon Weppe, science lead at The Ocean Race | December 15, 2021

At The Ocean Race we want to do all we can to support the protection and restoration of our seas. An important element of this is using our unique sailing race — which goes through some of the most remote parts of the planet — to gather valuable information about the impact of climate change on the ocean.

As they race across the world, in what is known as the toughest test of a team in sport, sailing teams use onboard sampling equipment to collect measurements of carbon dioxide, sea surface temperature, salinity, PH levels and chlorophyll a. These data are provided to some of the world’s leading scientific bodies, in an unparalleled collaboration between ocean research organisations and professional sailors. The initiative helps to increase understanding of ocean health by filling critical data gaps in remote areas and corroborating findings in locations where research already exists.

How it all started

We launched our innovative science programme, which was developed in collaboration with 11th Hour Racing, Premier Partner of The Ocean Race and Founding Partner of the Racing with Purpose sustainability programme, during the 2017-18 edition of the Race. As the seven boats circumnavigated the world during the 10-month journey they measured a range of variables to help provide insights on weather, climate change and microplastics.

Sailors deployed 30 scientific drifter buoys to capture valuable data that was shared with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Global Drifter Program to further scientific understanding of sea surface temperature, ocean currents and the Earth’s climate. This data helps to improve forecasts and predictions related to the ocean, climate and weather, which is useful in the understanding of longer-term trends, patterns and changes. The data is also valuable in the short-term for predicting intensifying storms and extreme weather events.

Two of the teams measured levels of microplastics, finding it to be widespread, even in the most remote locations such as Point Nemo, in the Southern Ocean, where the nearest humans are on the International Space Station.

Why it matters

Climate change and plastic pollution are two of the biggest threats to the health of the seas and, as the state of the ocean is explicitly linked with the health of the planet, these threats should be a concern to all of us.

The ocean plays a crucial role in climate regulation. It has absorbed over 90% of human-made excess heat since the 1970s and a quarter of human-made CO2, helping to effectively mitigate climate change. Data, including carbon dioxide, salinity and temperature, is incredibly valuable to scientists examining the effects of climate change and predicting what will happen in the future. It is vital that scientists understand the levels of CO2 in the ocean as it is a key factor in the world’s ‘carbon budget’, which informs targets and predictions for carbon reduction, which is vital to keep the world on track to stay within the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Carbon data gathered by boats is shared with the Surface Ocean Carbon Dioxide Atlas (SOCAT), which feeds into the Global Carbon Budget as well as 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.

Plastic, meanwhile, is a more visible problem, with at least 8 million tonnes of it entering the ocean each year, harming marine species that ingest or become entangled in it, and entering our food chain.

We know that we cannot live without a healthy ocean and that we cannot properly protect what we don’t understand. Governments and organisations base policy and decisions on the best available scientific knowledge in order to effectively protect and restore the ocean, so improving knowledge and generating a more comprehensive understanding of the state of our seas is paramount.

Sailors and science

The science programme can only be successful with the support of teams. Despite the onboard equipment adding extra weight to the vessels — which are designed and equipped to be as streamlined as possible — and providing further work for the often exhausted sailors, teams have embraced the programme.

During the inaugural edition of The Ocean Race Europe this summer, several teams carried scientific equipment on board as part of an activity endorsed by the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which supports efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health and create improved conditions for sustainable development of the ocean.

As they raced from Lorient in France to Genova, Italy, 11th Hour Racing Team took 24/7 surface measurements of carbon dioxide, sea temperature and salinity. The team also carried onboard scientific equipment during the 2017-18 edition of the round-the-world race.

Simon Fisher from 11th Hour Racing Team explained why the team wanted to take part in the initiative:

“At 11th Hour Racing Team, one of our goals is to drive positive change for ocean health by collaborating with other teams, events, and organizations. As sailors, we are extremely fortunate to be regularly at sea, and The Ocean Race takes us to some very remote areas of the planet which scientists rarely get access to. Through the onboard science program, we can be their ‘eyes and ears’ and contribute to the collection of data to support climate and ocean change research to help preserve the marine environment we all depend on.”

Teams are also encouraged to use the science equipment outside of races. Data collected by 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.

The state of the seas

Measurements of dissolved CO2, collected by the 11th Hour Racing Team in The Ocean Race Europe, have been provided to EuroSea, a European Commission funded programme that assesses the role of the ocean in climate change and improves the ocean observing system. Findings show that carbon dioxide levels were highest in the Mediterranean, which supports recent research that has found levels in the Mediterranean to have soared during the 21st century. Data gathered in the Western Mediterranean, one of the global hotspots for carbon absorption by the ocean, was especially valuable as the sea can be viewed as a ‘miniature ocean’ where changes happens faster than in the wider ocean and can therefore provide insight on what will happen on a global scale on longer timescales.

Meanwhile, data about microplastics, gathered by Ambersail-2 and AkzoNobel Ocean Racing, found plastic microplastics in every one of the 36 samples, with the Baltic Sea having the highest levels, at twice the amount found in the Mediterranean, which is widely regarded as a hotspot for plastic pollution.

The future 

For our next race in 2022-23 our ambition is to expand the collaboration between science and our racing teams. We will equip even more boats with specialised equipment to capture measurements, creating an even stronger data collection for research organisations. The new route for our forthcoming race will include a long leg in the Southern Ocean, which will provide an opportunity to gather data in some of the planet’s most remote regions where there is no, or little, data available to scientists.

The Ocean Race Europe Science Report can be viewed here.



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