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Round-the-World Racers Lend a Hand to Science

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 26, 2002
 
The Volvo Ocean Race is ultimately about speed and competition on the
seas. But the competing boats also team with NASA and research
institutions to aid oceanic science and environmental
education.

In the course of the sailing marathon, which extends
across four oceans, the contestants regularly record data that helps
scientists assess oceanic conditions.


The effort is a collaboration with more than two dozen scientific institutions around the world, including NASA and the UK's Southampton Oceanography Centre.

A key aim of the program, known as the Volvo Ocean Adventure, is to capitalize on the excitement of the race to stimulate public interest in oceans and the need to preserve their resources for generations to come.

The initiative is "a very interesting way of involving the public, especially the kids," said marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence.

"By following these teams," she added, "people are becoming more interested in the ocean and how it works. We've got lots to learn by looking over the shoulders of these racers."

Live and Virtual Oceanic Research

Each yacht in the Volvo Ocean Race is equipped with instruments that measure sea-surface temperatures and ocean color.

Ocean color is an important indicator of the presence of phytoplankton—tiny plants crucial to the health of not only ocean ecosystems but of the entire planet, according to NASA oceanographer David Adamec. "Despite all the attention focused on rain forests, these [ocean] plants produce the majority of the oxygen that we breathe on Earth. So it's very important," he said.

The scientific data acquired by the racers is posted on the Web site of the education program, Volvo Ocean Adventure, where students, teachers, and others can monitor the progress of the race in environmental terms.

As people who spend much of their time at sea, the competitors in the race highly value the ocean and are eager to encourage greater awareness of its environmental importance.

Mark Rudigar, the co-skipper of second-place boat ASSA ABLOY, told an audience at the Maryland Science Center: "When you are sailing and racing around the world, you don't always see the changes we've caused to the ocean environment, the pollution."

"But it's there," he added. "That's why this kind of scientific effort is so important. After 40 years of sailing, I still get just as excited every time I see a dolphin following the boat. I want that to be protected for my children and grandchildren."

Observations From Space

NASA's satellite oceanography program has contributed heavily to the Volvo Ocean Adventure program by making the results of its daily observations about ocean wind, waves, and other conditions widely available.

"We have a mandate to view the planet as a whole, and to study Earth and its systems as only NASA can," said NASA oceanographer Eric Lindstrom.

David Adamec, also an oceanographer at NASA, said the agency uses satellites to collect data about a wide variety of conditions, such as water temperatures, levels of marine life, the presence of clouds and water vapor, pollution, ozone, winds, changes in sea level, and the height of waves.

Measurements of the ocean's surface topography increase knowledge of ocean circulation and its effect on long-term weather patterns such as El Niño.

Satellite measurement of wave heights on the ocean's surface, for example, is remarkably accurate. Although the satellites are in orbit 700 kilometers (about 435 miles) above Earth, they can record details to a range as small as two centimeters (about 3/4 of an inch).

Adamec said it's like "someone in Jacksonville, Florida, trying to determine whether someone in Washington, D.C., has their toes hanging over the edge of the sidewalk or not."

NASA charts oceanic winds using a highly accurate instrument called a scatterometer. Many of the Volvo racers are fascinated by such technology because of their ongoing interest in benefiting from bigger and better winds.

Into the Field

Winds play a critical role in ocean ecology. They drive powerful currents such as the Gulf Stream and mix carbon dioxide and other elements into the air and water. Just as water can hold a lot of heat, it can hold a lot of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases.

Wind measurements are useful to help scientists answer research questions that provide greater understanding of Earth's climate and other natural systems, such as how much carbon dioxide the ocean takes from the atmosphere.

"The oceans are the memory for our climate system," said Adamec.

"There is as much heat in the upper six feet of the ocean as there is in the entire atmosphere," he explained. "Without the ocean, the atmosphere would lose its memory of what its climate should be in about two weeks. The seas are not so forgetful."

Volvo Ocean Adventure project doesn't put just sailors and satellites to work. It also works to motivate students and encourage them to pursue environmental activism in defense of the ocean and the life it harbors.

Earle sees that outreach as perhaps the project's most important accomplishment.

"We can inspire the next generation of oceanographers and marine biologists," she said. "We need to win hearts and minds so that people realize the ocean's relevance to us, because our life is dependent on the ocean's well-being."
 

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