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Lisa Blair unveils shocking extent of microplastic pollution from her Antarctica expedition

by Carolyn Grant 2 Oct 2023 00:04 PDT

Australian world record solo sailor Lisa Blair has revealed the shocking extent of microplastic pollution in the Southern Ocean in the most comprehensive data collection achieved with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), recorded during her non-stop record winning race around Antarctica in 2022.

Lisa is presenting the historic findings during her week- long exhibition with her yacht 'Climate Action Now' on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, starting Monday October 2nd.

She set a new world record, becoming the fastest person in the world to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around Antarctica and the first women to do so. Lisa completed the journey in 92 days in 2022, taking 10 days off the previous record set by Fedor Konyukhov in 2008.

Lisa survived near misses, blizzards, waves the size of a 5-storey building and winds strong enough to rip the roof off a house. Lisa and her vessel Climate Action Now were rolled three times upside down on the voyage. Regardless of the weather conditions she was still able to participate in the micro plastic sampling every day to achieve the impressive dataset.

Through Lisa's Antarctica record, working in partnership with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and supported by the Integrated Marine Observing Systems (IMOS), she was able to complete the first near-continuous microplastics survey in Southern Ocean waters. A total of 178 seawater samples were collected from the sub-surface of the Southern Ocean and 83 samples have been processed and analysed.

Lisa said the shocking find was microplastics were present in all samples analysed.

"While I was expecting to find some plastic in the Southern Ocean, I wasn't at all prepared for every sample collected to have microplastics present," she said.

This finding confirms that like other oceans, the Southern Ocean is similarly broadly contaminated with microplastics regardless of proximity to land sources and at Point Nemo Lisa was in the most isolated place on earth.

Across all samples, the average concentration of microplastics collected was equivalent to 58,500 particles per an average Olympic size swimming pool.

Microplastic concentrations even around Point Nemo, were around the average, indicating that ocean currents are likely to be influencing the levels of contamination rather than proximity to anthropogenic activity areas.

"The logistical challenges of working in the remote Southern Ocean means continuous samples sets, such as that collected by Lisa Blair during her recent circumnavigation, provide us with a unique opportunity to establish baseline knowledge of this environment, and the data shows microplastics are everywhere," said Dr Cherie Motti, research scientist with the Biomolecular Analysis Facility at AIMS.

Key voyage findings:

  • The highest concentration of microplastics sampled was found in the waters below Australia and is equivalent to 357,500 particles of plastic in an Olympic size swimming pool.
  • Fibres were more abundant than fragments, comprising 64.8% of all microplastics found.
  • On average, the volume of water collected per sample was 1400 L and the distance covered was at least 200 km.
  • Provided data sets on ocean acidity, salinity and PCo2 for ocean health measurements with the 24/7 RAN micro lab
  • Supplied seafloor depth data to the Seabed 2030 Program
  • Deployed 8 weather drifting buoys and one A.R.G.O research float for the Bureau of Meteorology, becoming a mobile weather station
  • Contributed to the UN Decade of Ocean science through the Oceans Ops Odyssey Program
"I am a huge believer that as an adventurer I have a responsibility to our communities to support science. The Southern Ocean is such a data-sparse area of our planet and it would have been almost impossible for scientists to collect the data I was able to generate."

"I want to see a happy and healthy planet and people won't protect what they can't understand so I try to share my love of the ocean and this planet with my records. I think all adventurers have a responsibility to become story tellers and communicators," said Lisa, who was named 2022 Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

Lisa's sustainability journey first started in 2012 while sailing around the world in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

"We were more than 20 days from land sailing across the Southern Ocean from South Africa to New Zealand. I was at the helm looking out when we crested a wave and there, off our bow was a Styrofoam box floating past. We were thousands of miles from land in the most remote regions of the planet and I was seeing plastic. I couldn't believe it."

Alarmed at the sight of human impact so far from land Lisa felt overwhelmed and lost as to how to change things.

"I used to bury my head in the sand and sooth myself with the idea that it was okay to do nothing because my little bit wouldn't matter. It wasn't until this mindset changed that I started to understand the power of individual action."

In 2015 Lisa launched her Climate Action Now message and began collecting post it note messages from people in the public. Lisa's yacht 'Climate Action Now' is adorned with thousands of messages of environmental actions from members of the community.

"If a million people think like I did 'that their bit didn't matter' then that was going to be a million more negative impacts but if we could shift this thinking and empower a million people to realise that their micro-actions matter then we would be creating a large impact."

"I am living proof that just one person can make a difference and there are many things that people can start doing today to make a difference. We all have the power to create change, it just starts with one action."

Lisa's top tips;

  • Install a filter on your washing machine,
  • Buy natural material clothing,
  • Be mindful of plastic pollution in the streets and waterways,
  • Dispose of your bottles correctly,
  • Drive less - to reduce CO2 and also minimise microplastics from the tyre erosion.
  • Invest in quality products,
  • Repair over replace,
  • Spend wisely - you are voting with your dollar.
Lisa currently holds 5 world records in sailing and is working to establish a World Record sailing from Sydney, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand as the fastest solo time. Departing in February 2024, Lisa aims to set a new record as the fastest person and a second record as the first woman. The solo monohull record of 12d 14h 41m 15s, was established on January 22nd,2020, by retired Australian Veteran James Prascevic sailing to raise awareness of PTSD.

Departing soon after the completion of the Sydney to Auckland voyage, Lisa is aiming to set a new Auckland-to-Auckland speed record sailing solo, non-stop and unassisted around New Zealand. Both records will be ratified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council. Lisa also has plans for an Arctic world record in the near future.

"Sailing has become a fantastic avenue for me to create change, the more projects I complete the more impact I can create.".

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