Citizen science collided with ocean rowing on Wednesday when Jordan Holsinger from Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation () came to brief our intrepid crews.
ASC, a nonprofit organisation founded 3 years ago by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish, specialises in matchmaking scientists who need data from obscure locations with adventurers who are going to those places, thereby giving their expeditions added scientific kudos. They have already assisted in the collection of data from all five oceans, both poles, and the top of Mount Everest.
Their main project right now is to find out more about the microplastics that litter our oceans – and this is where our rowers come in. At yesterday’s crew briefing, Jordan explained that of the many of samples ASC has collected and analyzed, nearly all of them were contaminated with microplastics..
We have known about the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans since the 1970’s, but attention over last few years has turned to microplastics, defined as plastic fragments less than 5mm in size. Although they are almost invisible to the naked eye, they nonetheless pose a serious danger to the health of oceans, wildlife and humans. As well as the toxins already in the plastic, the microplastics also act as sponges for other toxins dissolved in seawater, such as PCB and DDT, multiplying their toxic payload.
The pieces are the same size and shape as phytoplankton so are accidentally consumed by filter feeders. The toxins then bio-accumulate up the food chain to large sea mammals, birds – and of course humans.
Where do these tiny pieces of nastiness come from? Photodegraded fragments from bigger pieces of plastic, plus plastic beads from industrial processes and some face and body washes, plus fibres from synthetic clothing – for example, when you wash a fleece, up to 2,000 microplastic particles end up in the washing water and are not processed by wastewater management.
The goal of ASC’s project is to get a sense of the distribution of the plastics throughout the oceans. Kayakers and surfers have already been collecting samples, but not much is known about distribution in the open ocean.
This is where the Great Pacific Race can help. Our crews will be covering 2,400 miles of ocean, a vast swath of water. The race covers 35 degrees of longitude between Monterey and Honolulu, so each team has been allocated 2 degrees within which they must collect the sample – one degree in first half, and one degree in second half of race.
The process is quick and simple: each crew has been given two one-litre bottles, which they fill up with seawater, cap, and label. When they arrive in Hawaii they hand in the samples for analysis.
We are delighted that our rowers are helping to further the boundaries of human knowledge. Our oceans are still very under-explored, and we don’t know enough about the challenges that face them. We at the Great Pacific Race are doing what we can to help.