GB Row 600

Portsmouth researchers to assess UK marine pollution with the help of ‘world’s toughest rowing challenge’

  • 16 December 2021
  • 3 min read

The University of Portsmouth has just been given a generous donation to undertake the first detailed survey of pollution around Great Britain's waters.  

A team of scientists will map concentrations of microplastics and noise pollution, along with measuring the impact that humans have on ocean wildlife.  Data will be gathered during the GB Row Race – the world’s toughest rowing challenge.  

Throughout the 3,500km race, environmental samples on microplastics, environmental DNA (eDNA), temperature, noise and salinity will be gathered. The data will be collected by rowers with a range of sensors and equipment attached to their vessels.  Marine researchers from the University will then carry out analysis and experiments.  For the first time, a map of microplastic and noise pollution around the UK will be developed.

Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth said: “Ocean pollution is one of the most devastating challenges of our generation.  Currently, 12 million tonnes of plastic reach our oceans every year, with no sign of slowing.  Plastic production and waste are growing at exponential rates.  Solving the problem requires dramatic shifts in government policy, industry practice and lifestyle.  Equally as important – it requires scientific investigation and information to guide change.  The data being collected by GB Row will greatly enhance our understanding of conditions in the seas around the UK.  

Ocean pollution is one of the most devastating challenges of our generation.

Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth

“There are many forms of pollution that damage ocean ecosystems.  Noise pollution, rising temperatures, acidity and microplastics in the water have a catastrophic impact on our oceans and the life they support.  Nothing like this has ever been done before and we are extremely excited about the opportunity to work with GB Row.”

The data will be collected during the race for four consecutive years, enabling researchers to draw comparisons between years and plot year on year changes.  Marine scientists will analyse collected samples, assess environmental state, estimate pollution impact and recommend strategies for change.    

Microplastics analysis of the water samples will form a picture of plastic pollution on the UK coastline, its environmental damage and projected long-term impact.  This work links in with the University’s Revolution Plastics initiative to limit the damaging consequences of plastic pollution on our health and the environment.

Other water samples taken will allow scientists to measure evolving eDNA in fish and marine mammals.  It will create a picture of what species are living in and around different areas of the coast and how these might be changing over time.

Constant noise samples will be taken using specially fitted underwater microphones.  As human activity expands across our seas and oceans the underwater soundscapes are changing.  Acoustic habitats are being increasingly dominated by human-made noise, which can have a range of impacts on animals living in the sea – from behavioural disturbance to physiological damage.  The donation received will partially fund an opportunity for a PhD to be part of this and other aspects of the research.

The partnership that GB Row Challenge has formed with the University of Portsmouth is a unique and wonderful opportunity for us to facilitate groundbreaking ocean research.

William de Laszlo, Inaugural Guinness World Record holder for the GB Row Challenge in 2005 and event owner

The 2022 GB Row Challenge will take place in June.  The race already has a full complement of three teams and 18 participants comprising: “All Systems Row” all-female crew (x6), “The GB Bobsleigh Team” all-male crew (x6) and “The Old Guards” mixed crew (x6).  Departing from Tower Bridge, London, the crews will race around the entire GB coastline, attempting to break the previously established Guinness World Records for the event.

William de Laszlo, inaugural Guinness World Record holder for the GB Row Challenge in 2005 and event owner says: “We are currently recruiting teams to take part in the 2023, 2024 and 2025 races that also form a key part of the research programme being undertaken by the University of Portsmouth.  The correlation between four years’ data sets will allow for trends to be assessed over time. We believe this will be the first time that this has been done effectively in UK waters.

As climate change is happening all around us, this research is timely. The partnership that GB Row Challenge has formed with the University of Portsmouth is a unique and wonderful opportunity for us to facilitate groundbreaking ocean research, employ cutting-edge data techniques such as eDNA sampling, and effectively educate UK children and the wider public  thus driving real changes in their behaviour.”

The data will be analysed by University teams led by the following academics:

Dr Fay Couceiro, Reader in Biogeochemistry and Environmental Pollution, will be looking at microplastics.

Professor Alex Ford, Professor of Biology and Deputy Director of the Centre of Blue Governance, will be leading on eDNA.

Dr Andrew Lundgren, Reader in Gravitational Wave Science, will be researching noise.