Racing yachts to measure Southern Ocean CO2 | Polarjournal
The skippers of the Vendée Globe sail single-handed for several weeks with the aim of winning the race. They are now starting to take scientific equipment on board, but any measuring instruments must be autonomous, small, light and resistant in order to record data while sailing (Photo: Jug81)

With their keels in the water and the wind in their sails, IMOCA boats could be the missing pieces in the counting of carbon dioxide molecules passing from the atmosphere to the sea and vice versa

During the last edition of the Vendée Globe, the legendary solo sailing race around Antarctica starting from Vendée, France, Boris Herrmann sailed Malizia III-Seaexplorer through the convergence of the currents around the South Pole with an automated measuring device aboard his IMOCA, a class of racing yacht dedicated to ocean racing. The tool gathered data for global carbon-dioxide monitoring during the 2020-2021 austral summer. The information will help to answer two questions: how much is the Southern Ocean absorbing the effects of global warming by capturing carbon dioxide? And how much natural carbon dioxide is being released from the depths? Peter Landschützer, of VLIZ, a Dutch marine-research institute, and his colleagues published a paper in The Royal Society on 8 May that calls for more carbon-dioxide measurements using racing yachts.

The situation shows once again that lack of measurements in Antarctica is a problem for the study of global warming. “In general, the polar regions are difficult to observe. Since the advent of machine learning in science 10 years ago, we have been able to compensate for this lack of information with computational methods. Today, even though other tools such as artificial intelligence are being developed, we are still blocked by the lack of observation. There are a few research ships that cross to Antarctica from Tasmania or Chile, but in winter there are fewer of them,” he said.

When Mr Herrmann crossed the polar front south of New Zealand, he passed through a highly active area of the ocean, where waters from different origins, tropical and polar, converge without really mixing. “The device measured a high concentration of carbon dioxide that rises from the ocean floor after having been trapped for hundreds or even thousands of years. Some of this carbon dioxide goes back into the atmosphere, then the currents carry this water northwards where it traps atmospheric carbon dioxide again,” Mr Landschützer said. The challenge is to find out what the ratio is between these two phenomena.

Seaexplorer sailed for 80 days and almost 15 hours and passed through areas where carbon dioxide had never been measured by a ship. Note the increase in carbon dioxide south of New Zealand (Image: Peter Landschützer et al.)

There is disagreement about whether the Southern Ocean absorbs carbon dioxide in winter. Building out the existing observation system of buoys, diving robots, satellites and research vessels might settle the matter. Racing yachts passing through the area could check, improve and complement the accuracy of the other equipment with their own measurements. “The Vendée Globe takes place every four years, but there is also the Ocean Race and with these two races, we can have measurements every two years, so we will be able to follow the evolution of the Southern Ocean,” Mr Landschützer said.

The project started with Mr Herrmann and Fabrice Amedeo, another sailor, but the latter had to abandon the race on 11 December 2020 before he began the circumnavigation of Antarctica. “Now we have Giovanni Soldini and the 11th Hour Racing team, and the community is growing. I personally hope that, in every future race, every ship will measure carbon dioxide,” he said. “There is also a need for oxygen or microplastic measurements. The skippers are committed, they know it’s a privilege to go to these places, and, besides the desire to win the race, they want to add something extra.”

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Landschützer, P., Tanhua, T., Behncke, J., Keppler, L., 2023. Sailing through the southern seas of air-sea CO2 flux uncertainty. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 381, 20220064.

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