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Dee Caffari addresses delegates at the Cape Town Ocean Summit in December – Photo by Pedro Martinez/Volvo Ocean Race

Volvo Ocean Race revealing important data about our remote oceans

Seven teams are currently competing in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, but the event is not just a world-class sailing race, it’s a scientific expedition.

As part of a renewed focus on sustainability for the 2017–18 event, critical data on ocean health is being gathered by the boats’ crews that will contribute to scientific research and ocean health monitoring as part of a landmark science programme.

Made possible thanks to the support of Volvo Cars and a scientific consortium including NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), JCOMMOPS (UNESCO-IOC), GEOMAR and SubCtech, the science programme consists of three key pillars: meteorological data collection, scientific drifter buoy deployment, and onboard analysis of key metrics for ocean health, including salinity, partial pressure of CO2, dissolved CO2 and chlorophyll-a (algae), with the aim of creating a snapshot of the health of our oceans to help scientists worldwide.

Remote waters

Niklas Kilberg, director of sustainability coordination and communication at Volvo Cars, says: “The science programme is fully aligned with Volvo’s approach to sustainability, and we’re very proud to support the boats in their mission as they race in often remote oceans inaccessible to scientists.” Some of the waters the boats are going through are so remote that they have never been sampled before.

The teams are gathering meteorological and oceanographic data, and the information they collect will help scientists understand weather patterns and changes in climate. Additionally, the Turn the Tide on Plastic boat carries instrumentation that measures CO2 and collects samples of micro plastics in the oceans.

Britain’s Dee Caffari is skipper of Turn the Tide on Plastic and is leading the team amplifying the United Nations Environment Clean Seas campaign. She says: “This is a ground-breaking project, bringing sport and science together. As round-the-world sailors, we have seen first-hand the growing problem of marine debris and plastic pollution – and now we are collecting reference data for scientists around the globe.”

Too much plastic

Data from the first four legs of the race has revealed millions of tiny particles of plastic are floating in our oceans, with the highest concentrations in European waters (three million micro plastic particles per square kilometre of ocean). Micro plastics are tiny (less than 5 mm) particles of plastic – the result of larger pieces, such as single-use plastic bottles and shopping bags, breaking down – and are often invisible to the naked eye.

Over one million micro plastic particles per square kilometre of ocean were found in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, west of Cape Town, and the same amount was detected in Australian waters, close to Melbourne. Micro plastics were also found in the Southern Ocean close to the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone, although at a much lower concentration (four micro plastic particles per cubic metre).

“These findings suggest that the levels of micro plastic in the ocean are significantly higher than we first expected,” says Dr Toste Tanhua who works at GEOMAR, an ocean research institute in Kiel, Germany. “This is alarming as the micro plastic not only harms a wide range of marine life, but, through entering the food chain, in species such as tuna and mackerel, can cause harm to humans too.

“The Turn the Tide on Plastic race team is collecting extremely valuable scientific data that will help us gain a clearer picture of the amount of micro plastics in our oceans.”

Combatting the global crisis

During the Volvo Ocean Race, a series of ocean summits are being held at key stopovers as part of the sustainability programme. The summits bring together the worlds of sport, industry, government, science and ocean advocates, to showcase innovative solutions and announcements to combat the global crisis of ocean plastic pollution.

At the recent Hong Kong summit, Daisy Lo, assistant director of environmental protection, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government, pledged to explore ways to reduce plastic at source, revealed plans for a HK$20 million fund for upgrading plastic recycling facilities, and talked of efforts to clean up the marine environment.

At the ocean summit in Alicante, the Spanish government announced that it was joining the UN Clean Seas Campaign. The mayor of Alicante also announced an education campaign on plastic in all schools in the city. And at the Cape Town summit, the V&A Waterfront shopping centre, which welcomes 24 million visitors each year, pledged to eliminate single-use plastic bags and bottles.

Leg 6 of the Volvo Ocean Race – from Hong Kong to Auckland – will start on 7 February with the boats expected to arrive on 27 February. The Race Village will open on 24 February with an in-port race on 10 March before Leg 7 to Itajaí in Brazil starts on 18 March.

For further information, visit www.volvooceanrace.com

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