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Sport meets Science: World´s best skippers help observing the Ocean down south

Photos: Benoit Stichelbaut / Sea & Co
Photos: Benoit Stichelbaut / Sea & Co

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO) and IMOCA Ocean Masters World Championship team up to gather climate data in remote oceans, and particularly the Southern Ocean

The IMOCA Ocean Masters skippers, such as defending World Champion Jean Le Cam, go where only few people dare to go: to the very remote oceanic areas of the Southern hemisphere below 45°S and down to 55°S as they pass Cape Horn, where some of the world´s most extreme climactic conditions, the strongest winds and most massive waves await skippers like Le Cam and his fellow skippers on their IMOCA class 60ft sailing yachts on their non-stop single- or double-handed races around the globe.

Next time Jean Le Cam goes there, he will make a contribution to helping scientists better understand climate.

The Southern Ocean not only represents Eldorado for world class offshore sailors, it also plays an essential role in global warming. Acting like a giant lung, the Southern Ocean seasonally absorbs vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and heat, playing a key role in regulating the earth’s climate.

To conduct their studies, scientists analyse measurements of essential climate variables such as CO₂ concentration, sea water temperature and salinity. This data is collected by autonomous instruments, research vessels or by specially equipped merchant ships as they travel along the major trade routes. The analysis is internationally coordinated, but coverage is limited geographically to each ship’s actual itinerary. As a result, on trade routes the waters are very well observed, whereas in other areas, such as the Southern Ocean, few observations exist. Skippers sailing around Antarctica thus represent an ideal opportunity to gather important data through buoy deployments or via instruments installed onboard their yachts.

As future trends in carbon uptake by the Southern Ocean is very difficult to be predicted reliably, it is therefore critical to continue recording data in this area of the ocean. That´s were Jean Le Cam and his fellow skippers from IMOCA Ocean Masters World Championship come in: To form a unique partnership with UNESCO´s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the UN´s governing body when it comes to promoting international cooperation and to coordinating programmes in research, services and capacity-building, in order to learn more about the nature and resources of the ocean and coastal areas and to apply that knowledge for the improvement of the protection of the marine environment, and the decision-making processes of its Member States.

What started with a cooperation between IOC UNESCO and the Barcelona World Race in 2010 resulting in a minilab being fitted on one of the participating yachts, was extended in 2014 to eight vessels dropping Argo beacons in the South Atlantic to send back temperature and salinity data from this remote and infrequently visited part of the ocean. With the signing of a cooperation agreement between IOC-UNESCO and the class during the 21st edition of the United Nations Conference on climate change (COP21), all 30 IMOCA skippers have decided that they will participate with their boats in the data-gathering project in the five races of the IMOCA Ocean Masters World Championship.

Every IMOCA 60 will eventually be equipped with a standard environmental pack, which will serve the needs of scientific research and operational oceanography without compromising the performance of these state of the art racing machines.

The IMOCA Class is working together with experts from JCOMMOPS, joint coordination centre for ocean observing platforms of IOC-UNESCO and World Meteorological Organization (WMO). JCOMMOPS provides coordination at an international level for drifting buoys, moored buoys in the high seas, research vessels, ships of opportunity and sub-surface profiling floats.


Vladimir Ryabinin (Executive Secretary of the IOC-UNESCO)

“The implementation of a sustained and balanced observing system in the Southern Ocean is an objective which seemed not too long ago almost unachievable. Research cruises cannot be established frequently enough, and we were lacking opportunities to deploy autonomous instruments or gather data from volunteer vessels, simply because there are no regular shipping lines. Contributions from the IMOCA racing yachts will help us filling up gaps in areas of highest importance for climate research, and without carbon emission. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO is delighted to coordinate these operations, in particular through its field office JCOMMOPS. The fact that we were able to sign this letter of cooperation at Le Bourget, during the COP21 is the best beginning for this cooperation considering the results of the Conference!”

Jean Kerhoas (President of IMOCA)

“The signing of this agreement with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) comes as a great satisfaction for the class I preside over, as it’s the culmination of a year of work that was first initiated with the FNOB during the last Barcelona World Race. IMOCA feels a real sense of pride at actively participating in the preservation of the oceans during our next races, through our skippers, who are virtually the only people to visit these most remote oceans.”

Jean Le Cam (IMOCA Ocean Masters Champion 2013-2014)

“I’m very eager to be moving forward with UNESCO’s IOC and getting down to the practicalities of setting up this partnership, as well as discovering the possible equipment available for the Vendée Globe. I’m very motivated by the prospect of passing on the message to the members of IMOCA so each skipper can do their bit and make their contribution to this scientific work.”

Sir Keith Mills (President of OSM, Open Sports Management)

“OSM, as promoter of the IMOCA Ocean Masters Championship, warmly welcomes this excellent initiative. Our approach isn’t just commercial, as we must play a lead role in this environmental and socially responsible campaign. The oceans are the playing field for our Championship, but they are also key to our planet’s environmental well being.”

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