Aboard ‘Turn the Tide on Plastic’ during Leg 7 from Auckland to Itajaí in the depths of the Southern Ocean – Photo by Sam Greenfield/Volvo Ocean Race
VOR data reveals microplastics in world’s remotest ocean
The Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme has found levels of plastic in areas of the Southern Ocean that have never before been tested. The samples were taken close to Point Nemo, the furthest point from land on Earth, where the nearest humans are on the International Space Station.
The groundbreaking data was released at the Volvo Ocean Race Ocean Summit at the race stopover in Newport, USA, in May, during which the issues and solutions to the plastic crisis were discussed.
Point Nemo – sometimes referred to as the ‘oceanic pole of inaccessibility’ – is located over 1000 miles (1600 km) equidistantly from the coasts of three far-flung islands. Ducie Island (one of the Pitcairn Islands) is to the north, Motu Nui (of the Easter Island chain) is to the northeast, and Maher Island (off the coast of Antarctica) is to the south. Point Nemo is so far from land that the nearest humans are often astronauts. The International Space Station orbits the Earth at a maximum of 258 miles (416 km) – the nearest inhabited landmass is over 1670 miles (2700 km) away.
High levels of microplasticsThe findings show that close to Point Nemo there were between nine and 26 particles of microplastic per cubic metre. As the Volvo Ocean Race boats sailed close to Cape Horn, off the tip of South America, measurements increased to 57 particles per cubic metre.
Levels of 45 particles per cubic metre were recorded 452 km from Auckland, after the start of Leg 7, and only 12 particles per cubic metre were found 1000 km from the finish in Leg 7 stopover city Itajaí. The difference in measurements could be explained by ocean currents carrying the microplastics great distances.
The highest levels of microplastics found so far, 357 particles per cubic metre, were found in a sample taken in the South China Sea, east of Taiwan, an area that feeds into the Great Pacific Ocean Gyre (also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).
Dr Sören Gutekunst of GEOMAR Institute for Ocean Research Kiel, funded by the Cluster of Excellence Future Ocean, analysed the preliminary microplastics data at the laboratory in Kiel, Germany.
“This is the first ever data that the scientific community has been able to analyse from a relatively inaccessible part of our blue planet. Unfortunately, it shows how far and wide microplastics have penetrated our vast oceans and that they are now present in what, until now, many have considered to be untouched, pristine waters,” Dr Gutekunst told attendees at the summit.
To the ends of the earthThe measurements were collected on the 7600 nautical mile Leg 7, the longest in the race, from Auckland to Itajaí on both the Turn the Tide on Plastic and AkzoNobel boats.
The boats also collect other oceanographic data measurements, including temperature, CO2, salinity, and algae content, which gives an indication of levels of ocean acidification.
Anne-Cecile Turner, sustainability programme leader for the Volvo Ocean Race, says: “Such information is extremely valuable as it helps fill in the large gaps in our understanding of how plastic breaks down over a number of years and is spread to the ends of the earth by ocean currents.
“It’s also a stark reminder of the pressing need to tackle this plastic crisis head on, and governments, businesses and individuals all have a role to play in addressing the problem.”
Oceans under pressureJeremy Pochman, co-founder and strategic director of 11th Hour Racing, and founding principal partner of the Volvo Ocean Race Sustainability Programme, says: “For so long, we have treated the oceans as an inexhaustible resource. The data we find here from onboard the boats show that microplastics are found in the most remote places on Earth, a clear sign that all our oceans are under great pressure.
“This is open-source data, available to the public, and easily used to highlight the dangers of single-use plastic. It is one point of engagement in the conversation about solutions toward a circular economy.”
Microplastics are often invisible to the naked eye and can take thousands of years to degrade. By collecting information on their levels, the mission of the Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme is to help scientists gain insight into the scale of plastic pollution and its impact upon marine life.
Stuart Templar, director of sustainability for Volvo Car Group, which is funding the science programme, says: “Volvo Cars is proud to be supporting this innovative research project into the global problem of marine plastic pollution. This latest data shows that the impact of human behaviour has reached the most remote areas of our oceans. The time for inaction is over.”