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PhD student to set sail on study of ocean’s garbage


Queen’s Civil Engineering graduate student Bryson Robertson has a unique and potentially life-altering plan for pursuing his PhD. Over the next three years, he will sail around the world to study ocean garbage and the health of coral reefs, documenting among other things the huge amount of debris that washes up daily on even the most remote beaches.

Called the OceanGybe Global Research and Outreach Expedition, it will be a multi-year research project conducted through Queen’s Centre for Water and the Environment (CWE). As well as documenting and recording the effects of marine pollution, Robertson will use scientific principles and ocean modeling research tools to study the effects of ocean bathymetry (the oceanic equivalent of topography) on the breaking characteristics of ocean swells.

Robertson’s goal, along with fellow ocean and surfing enthusiast Hugh Patterson, is to raise public awareness about the deteriorating state of the world’s coastlines, and to generate action toward creating a more sustainable future.

The environmentally-minded adventurers leave for La Paz, Mexico at the end of April where they will spend two months preparing their 40-foot Tradewinds Performance Cruiser. The sail date will be announced on their website.

“Our voyage will take us through every major ocean on Earth, to some of the most pristine and untouched coasts, but also to some of the most heavily polluted and destroyed ocean environments,” says Robertson, noting that one area they have targeted is the Great Pacific Gyre: an enormous floating garbage dump about the size of Alberta, that is largely made up of plastics.

“By identifying and displaying the vast effects that pollution has on our oceans, and on those who rely upon the ocean for their livelihood, we hope people will start to realize their personal impact and take more care in how they live their lives on a day-to-day basis,” he continues.

Robertson, 25, and Patterson, 28, began planning their trip while they studied engineering together at the University of Victoria. But what started as a dream to sail the world’s oceans in search of adventure and world-class surfing locations evolved into something much more, after Bryson linked up with Kevin Hall, head of Queen’s Civil Engineering Department. It soon became apparent that the voyage could also provide a platform for some very innovative ecological research.

“With the continual growth of extreme weather events, storms and giant waves, research like this is important to ensure our planners and engineers are equipped with all the knowledge necessary to understand the effects of these events,” says Robertson. “For example, the impacts of tsunamis and ocean waves caused by hurricanes will be better understood when they inevitably break.”

During the study, he will also use high-tech “hyper spectral” cameras to photograph ocean coral reefs – now under attack from increased pollution and increased ocean temperatures – to accurately map their health in a non-destructive way.

“Field expeditions provide an unparalleled opportunity for students to tackle world scale problems that affect extremely large populations,” says Dr. Hall, who is also director of the Centre for Water and the Environment, and Robertson’s graduate supervisor. “This particular research program will provide opportunities to develop innovative methods and protocols to assess human impacts on marine environments.”

The work is being sponsored by a number of industrial partners, along with contributions from the Centre. The voyage will also be used as an outreach exercise, in which the crew members will provide educational opportunities to school children and interested groups in many small communities along the way.

As well as doing the fieldwork for his PhD requirements, Robertson plans to regularly update all of the team’s findings on their web site and make them available through the media, educational institutions and international research and environmental organizations. He will use “sail mail” (on-board, text-based e-mail) to post information and communicate with participating partners.

Noting that most of the team’s sponsors to date are “in kind,” providing gear required for the journey, Robertson says they will be looking to big corporations and other interested parties for further support in getting their message out to the global community.

“People have dumped garbage and chemicals into our oceans for decades, with no due thought as to where it ends up and who it influences,” he says. “It’s time Canadians and international citizens had a complete picture of what they’re doing. We hope to inspire them to take better care of their local waters, and to conserve the global waters.”

After departing from Mexico in April, the adventurers’ route will take them through the South Pacific island chain, making presentations en route at schools and resorts. The first major destination on the three-year epic is New Zealand. Depending upon winds and other boat issues, they hope to arrive there in November.


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