Swiss researchers obtain Southern Ocean data from racing yacht | Polarjournal
It is true that Jules Verne’s main character Phileas Fogg in the novel “Around the World in 80 Days” did not start out with sailing yachts. But Oliver Heer (right) plans to win the world’s toughest sailing regatta with his racing yacht (left), also with around 80 days, while also providing Swiss polar science with important data from the Southern Ocean. Pictures: Oliver Heer Ocean Racing

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are such a vast and remote area that it is difficult for scientists to obtain accurate real-time data over a wide area and from a wide variety of corners. Therefore, research teams sometimes have to take unusual paths to obtain such valuable data. Groups from ETH Zurich and the Universities of Bern and Lausanne are taking a very unusual approach. This is because they are working with the Swiss Polar Institute and a racing yacht, which will cross the Southern Ocean in the world’s toughest yacht race, the Vendée Globe 2024, collecting important data along the way.

When Jules Verne published his novel “Around the World in 80 Days” in 1873, the book focused on the technical progress of travel and the race itself. Almost 150 years later, at least the goal has not changed: A race in which the fastest travel around the world in around 80 days. But instead of starting and ending in London, they start and end in Les Sables d’Olonne in Brittany, instead of using all kinds of transport they use racing yachts, and the route doesn’t take them through India or the USA, but through the Southern Ocean around Antarctica and the Atlantic. In addition, racers are focusing more on sustainability and environmental and climate protection and want to do something meaningful: Support science. That’s the goal of Switzerland’s Oliver Heer and his racing team Oliver Heer Ocean Racing when they take their racing sailing yacht IMOCA-Gitana 80 to the start line for the toughest sailing yacht race in the world, the Vendée Globe 2024-25, on November 10, 2024.

The 34-year-old Zurich skipper, together with the Swiss Polar Institute, has launched a collaboration with research groups from ETH Zurich and the Universities of Bern and Lausanne aimed at collecting important physical and biogeochemical data in the Southern Ocean during the race. “The extreme environment of the Southern Ocean still holds many secrets – especially with regard to its role as a CO2 sink in the atmosphere,” explains ETH professor Nicolas Gruber. “With these novel measurements, we will be able to unlock some of these.” At the heart of the measurement campaign, which will begin not only during the race but already with the training runs, is a measuring device specially developed for racing yachts by the German company subCTech. This relatively small and handy device can measure the CO2 content of seawater and send it to research groups in real time. In addition, data on water temperature and salinity are also registered and forwarded. This will allow a unique, continuous data set to be created from the Southern Ocean around Antarctica during the race, a unique opportunity for research.

The Vendée Globe is a sailing regatta for solo sailors and takes place between November and February starting from the French coast going deep south, where the yachts sail through the Southern Ocean around Antarctica back to France. The fastest can do it in about 80 days. Image: Map website Vendée Globe 2021

Thanks to the Vendée Globe route, a circuitous transect can be laid through the Southern Ocean close to the Antarctic border. In addition, researchers obtain data on a wide variety of conditions. This can help create better ocean models, especially for extreme events that are likely to increase in the region under climate change. “The new high-frequency measurements provide us with a unique opportunity to study compound marine heat waves and extreme ocean acidity in near real-time and in largely undersampled regions such as the Southern Ocean,” states Professor Thomas Frölicher of the University of Bern.

Swiss skipper Oliver Heer has plenty of experience as a racing skipper and wants to win not only fame and glory with his participation in the Vendée Globe 2024-25, but also society’s interest in sustainability and climate change. Image: Oliver Heer Ocean Racing

For Oliver Heer and the Swiss Polar Institute, the collaboration with the research groups is a great thing. Because, although other race participants will also be taking similar measurements, the Swiss project is a first because it is closely linked to research projects already underway by the groups and thus provides the most up-to-date data that can be incorporated into the work right away. Thus, the Swiss research groups gain a practically contemporary state in the region Oliver Heer sailed through. For Oliver Heer himself, this is an important contribution to his RaceforChange vision. That’s because he and his team are not only driven by the hope of fame and glory if they win, but he also wants to focus the public’s interest on the impacts of climate change and ongoing research on climate and environmental issues. That is why he had also approached the Swiss Polar Institute for a possible collaboration. And SPI was enthusiastic about the idea and now coordinates the cooperation between Heer and the research groups. “We are delighted to connect internationally recognised experts on the physics and biogeochemistry of the Southern Ocean and to have the opportunity to collect unique environmental data in remote and data-sparse regions during Oliver’s sailing campaign,” says SPI Executive Director Danièle Rod. “We are convinced of the added-value of science performed on small and agile platforms, such as sailing yachts..” Perhaps Jules Verne would also share this opinion today.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the SPI project page: Vendée Globe

Link to the website of Oliver Heer Ocean Racing

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