© Getty Images

The world's longest and most challenging professional sports event, The Ocean Race, is leading a scientific mission in the Antarctic, where crucial data on the health of the ocean at the planet's extremes is being collected. In this remote region where information is extremely scarce, The Ocean Race stands as not only the world's toughest team sailing challenge but also the only team sport globally that mandates all participants to engage in the collection of vital ocean data. It is the sole sporting event with a scientific program extending beyond the competitions themselves, as seen in the recent utilization of scientific equipment by The Ocean Race team in the Transat Jacques Vabre and expeditions like the journey to Antarctica.

The Southern Ocean is an iconic part of The Ocean Race route, serving as a testing ground where the world's best offshore sailors confront extreme conditions. The race has been contributing data to the scientific community studying changes in this remote part of the world. However, this marks the first time The Ocean Race team is using equipment for this purpose in the Southern Ocean outside of a competition.

The Ocean Race is contributing scientific data to the Ocean Decade Odyssey project, endorsed by the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). This project supports efforts to reverse the declining trend in ocean health and create improved conditions for sustainable ocean development.

The scientific program, established in collaboration with the principal partner 11th Hour Racing, is particularly valuable for scientists. The teams sailing around the world gather information from ocean areas inaccessible to research vessels, helping fill critical knowledge gaps. Once analyzed, the findings are incorporated into reports and databases that inform and influence crucial environmental decisions by companies and governments.

Tests for microplastics and assessments of the impact of climate change on the ocean will be conducted south of 70 degrees latitude. The analysis of tiny microplastics (up to 30 microns) has never been done before in the Antarctic.

The Antartic -© Getty Images
The Antartic -© Getty Images

The Antarctic and the Southern Ocean play a crucial role in regulating global climate and are home to key species such as Antarctic krill.

Specialized scientific teams developed and utilized in The Ocean Race 2022-23 will gather over four million data points on ocean health during a unique four-month expedition on a sailboat specifically designed for polar expeditions. Stephen Wilkins, an Antarctic veteran and sailor who has visited the region 22 times, will be responsible for collecting data and samples on board.

The ship, which set sail from the Falkland Islands in the Argentine Sea over the Atlantic Ocean, will head to the Bellingshausen Sea in Antarctica. It will remain among the ice for two months, mostly south of 70 degrees latitude, before heading towards Chile.

Sixty water samples will be taken to analyze microplastics, 40 while sailing and 20 when the ship is anchored. The National Oceanography Centre (NOC), a scientific collaborator of The Ocean Race, will analyze the samples to determine the quantity and size of microplastics, as well as their chemical composition using cutting-edge analytical techniques. This will help understand the spread and potential origin of plastic in the ocean. Scientists can compare the samples collected on the round trip to Antarctica with existing data to determine how plastic pollution levels are changing. The sampling team will capture tiny microplastics (up to 30 microns in size), a level of analysis never before performed in Antarctica, representing a significant opportunity to enhance knowledge about the extent of plastic pollution in this remote region.

The ship will also carry one of The Ocean Race's OceanPacks to measure various oceanic data during the four-month journey, including oxygen, carbon dioxide, salinity, water temperature, and atmospheric pressure. These data, rarely captured at such latitudes, are highly valuable for the race's scientific partners. Leading global institutions, including the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research GEOMAR, Ifremer, and CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), will analyze the data as part of their research on the impact of climate change on the marine environment and to inform predictions on how the ocean will respond to climate change in the future.

Stefan Raimund, scientific leader of The Ocean Race, said, "Although the ocean is considered vast and largely inaccessible, this has not protected it from the impact of human activity. With record levels of sea ice and catastrophic failure in emperor penguin reproduction this year, Antarctica is a clear example of this.

"Science is the most powerful weapon we have to combat the decline in ocean health, which is why we are seizing opportunities like this Antarctic expedition to reveal the impact of human activity in the remotest parts of the planet. The more we know about the health of this region, crucial for global climate, the better it can be protected."

Illustrating the importance of The Ocean Race and its contribution to the scientific world, The President of The Ocean Race, Richard Brisius, will speak about the scientific program during the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28. He will be part of a group of speakers sharing innovative solutions for ocean climate science in an Ocean Climate Spotlight session organized by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and OceanX.

To learn more, earlier this year, The Ocean Race launched a dedicated data visualization platform: theoceanracescience.com