The Ocean Race, mission to Antarctica on a... sailing boat

Driven by the wind in the Southern Ocean: the first round-the-world extra-racing scientific mission will obtain data on microplastics

Ocean Race: on a sailing boat in search of microplastics in Antarctica
Sailing in the Southern Ocean: Ocean Race's first extra-racing scientific mission will collect data on microplastics (Photo: Ocean Race / Photo by henrique setim on Unsplash)

Sailing in the Southern Ocean: The Ocean Race's first extra-racing scientific mission will collect data on microplastics (Photo: Ocean Race / Photo by henrique setim on Unsplash)

The Ocean Race celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special mission in the most remote areas ofAntartide. Led by veteran sailor Stephen Wilkins, the crew will collect vital data on the health of the planet's most isolated and least understood ocean.

This is not the first time The Ocean Race has participated in the collection of scientific data. The one that has just set sail from the Falkland Islands towards the Bellingshausen Sea, however, is a unique expedition of its kind: the first scientific mission outside the race of The Ocean Race will last four months and will take place almost entirely on board a sailboat specially designed for navigation in polar ice.

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The Ocean Race, scientific mission to Antarctica
Stephen Wilkins, sailor who has visited Antarctica 22 times, leading The Ocean Race scientific expedition (Photo: Rick Tomlinson/The Ocean Race)

The mission to Antarctica of the world regatta The Ocean Race

La sailboat from The Ocean Race it set sail from the Falkland Islands, headed towards the Bellingshausen Sea in Antarctica, where it will remain among the ice for two months: it will spend most of its time beyond the 70th parallel South, then it will return to heading north towards Chile.

The expedition, led by the Antarctic veteran and sailor Stephen Wilkins, who has visited the region 22 times, is tasked with collecting 60 water samples to check for the presence of microplastics. We will take care of analyzing them National Oceanography Center (NOC) of Southampton in England, which will determine the number, size and chemical composition of microplastics collected.

Scientists intend to compare the data collected during The Ocean Race's Antarctic voyage with existing data to understand how levels of plastic pollution and how microplastics move in the oceans.

The on-board equipment, developed and used in Ocean Race 2022-23 to detect further 4 million data on ocean health, will be used to capture microplastics up to 30 micron, allowing scientists to access a level of analysis never before experienced in Antarctica.

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Microplastics all the way to Antarctica
The filters for capturing microplastics used during The Ocean Race's scientific mission in Antarctica (Photo: Rick Tomlinson/The Ocean Race)

The study of microplastics in the most remote areas of Antarctica

The mission was born to reveal theimpact of human activities in the most remote areas of the planet: the inaccessibility of those lands at the edge of the world was not enough to protect the ecosystem from the effects of the Anthropocene. Microplastics, metals, hydrocarbons and even accumulations of forever chemicals such as PFAS they are now a full-blown presence in Antarctica, reminding us that the impact of our actions always takes place on a global scale.

The samples collected by The Ocean Race”will help to better understand the abundance, characteristics, sources, fate and impacts of microplastics in the remote Antarctic region”, explained the Doctor Katsiaryna Pabortsava, marine biogeochemistry at the National Oceanography Center (NOC).

"Scientists will have a unique opportunity to study how microplastics are transported to Antarctica, how they disperse into the ocean depths and accumulate on the sea floor”. This will allow us to finally understand what the concrete risks are for the precious Antarctic ecosystem.

The sailboat captained by Stephen Wilkins will also carry a OceanPack, an instrument used during The Ocean Race regattas to collect data on the ocean, starting with those relating to water temperature, pressure and salinity.

This type of data, rarely captured at such remote latitudes, will be analyzed by several institutions, including the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for ocean research, theIFREMER and CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique).

The aim of the research is to provide possible predictions on how the ocean will respond to climate change in the coming years and in the most distant future.

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Microplastics in the oceans: The Ocean Race arrives in Antarctica
The Ocean Race has contributed to the collection of scientific data on the health of the sea since 2015: a fundamental contribution for researchers (Photo: Ainhoa ​​Sanchez/The Ocean Race)

The Ocean Race, sport and research allied for the health of the sea

THEAntarctic Ocean is an old acquaintance for navigators of the transoceanic regatta: here the best offshore sailors in the world put themselves to the test in the most extreme conditions, driving their hulls literally to the ends of the earth.

This year, the third monumental stage of the last Ocean Race, over 12 thousand nautical miles between Cape Town and Itajaí, on the Brazilian coast – reached touching Point Nemo, the most remote point on Earth.

The regatta, which ended in Genoa on July XNUMXst, gave an exceptional contribution to scientific research: within the The Ocean Race Scientific Programme, which aims to promote understanding of the state of the seas, the11th Hour Racing Team, winner of the regatta, took 27 water samples containing genetic material dispersed in the water.

For the first time in the world, racing boats took part in the collection of environmental DNA, allowing measurement the health and biodiversity of the seas and providing a complete picture of the species present in the Ocean.

The Ocean Race's science program took its first steps in 2015, when teams began acquiring data on the ocean via Argo floats. In the 2017-18 edition, the boats used in competition gained scientific instruments to measure the health indicators of the sea in even more detail.

This year, in addition to providing essential data to study pollution levels from microplastics (present in 93 percent of the samples taken by the 11th Hour Racing Team), The Ocean Race also launched a data visualization platform dedicated to the exploration of ocean science.

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The Ocean Race, racing boats on a scientific mission
The OceanPack on board The Ocean Race boat: allows you to collect data on water temperature, pressure and salinity (Photo: Stefan Raimund/he Ocean Race)

A fundamental contribution to the new ocean sciences

The Antarctic expedition led by Stephen Wilkins is the first to take The Ocean Race's scientific instruments into water outside of competition.

"Science is the most powerful weapon we have to fight declining ocean health, which is why we are using opportunities, like this Antarctic expedition, to reveal the impact of human activity on the most remote parts of the planet", has explained Stefan Raimund, scientific director of The Ocean Race.

The more we know about the health of this region of the planet, which is critical to the global climate, the better we can protect it.

"Although the ocean is considered vast and largely inaccessible, this has not protected it from the impact of human activities”, explained Raimund, “with its record levels of sea ice and the catastrophic reproductive failure of emperor penguins this year, Antarctica is a clear example".

The Ocean Race's science program is already making major contributions to ocean science: President, Richard Brisius, was included among the speakers at the next one United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28).

The scientific activities that have accompanied, for years now, the most exciting regatta in the world were discussed in a session dedicated to the innovative solutions of the ocean climate science organized by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and OceanX.

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The Ocean Race 2022-23: Race teams collected over 4 million data points on ocean health (Photo: The Ocean Race)