Winning the race against climate change

The Extreme E electric off road SUVs in action on the race course in AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of Extreme E.

​Originally published in Wired.

Walking the shoreline amidst pounding surf and shifting sand is hard work. If you're a baby sea turtle, fending off predators and pollution, it's harder still. And if climate change has turned the only beach you've ever known into more of a cliff, it can make life nearly impossible.

This is, unfortunately, the challenge for green sea and Hawksbill turtles who call the gorgeous stretch of Red Sea coastline named Ras Baridi their ancestral home.

After roaming the region's oceans for decades, turtles return, by some miracle of natural geolocation, to the spot where they were born to lay their eggs. They do this, even if humans have changed the beach they call home. As ecologist Carlos Duarte puts it, "turtles are operating on millennial time scales, and we are asking them to adapt their behavior, to us, in the span of a few decades."

Extreme E 2021

Thanks to the efforts of royalty, academics, and now an upstart racing series called Extreme E, the plight of green sea and Hawksbill turtles might well get the attention, and the action, that it deserves.

Motorsports isn't known as a hotbed of environmental conservation, but the CEO of Extreme E, Alejandro Agag, wants to change that. His vision, through the founding of Formula E and Extreme E, is to bring the full wealth and prestige of motorsport to bear to save some of the planet's hardest hit ecosystems. Part of the solution, according to Agag, is the development of the next generation of motorsports such as Extreme E—an all-electric, gender-balanced, offroad racing series. 

Teams of women and men travel the globe on the RMV St. Helena, a former Royal Mail vessel kitted out like a five-star hotel, and loaded with electric SUVs to drive home messages about sustainability. In 2021 they will visit five places deeply impacted by climate change to engage in conservation projects. Locations include the Amazon rainforest, a rapidly melting ice sheet in Greenland, the overfished waters of Senegal, the highlands of Patagonia and the desert coasts of Saudi Arabia, which is where turtles come into the picture. 

When casting about for conservation projects to undertake in Saudi Arabia, the Extreme E racing series consulted the Ba'a Foundation and the science and technology research university KAUST for input. What they got was spirited interest from a heritage foundation, and deep scientific expertise from researchers at KAUST.

Saudi Arabia has "a very young population, which is eager for world-class events and sporting activities. It also has a natural habitat for some of the most beautiful and rare species such as the endangered turtles we are trying to protect," Bader Alrabiah, executive director of the Ba'a Foundation said.

Members from a number of organizations including Extreme E, the Ba'a Foundation, KAUST, NEOM and Oxford University took part in the dedication ceremony at Ras Baridi. Photo by Nicholas Demille.

Ras Baridi, located just 50 Kilometres north of Yanbu, is a major nesting site of Red Sea and Indian Ocean significance. Sea turtles are born and return about 30 years later to reproduce. Unfortunately, due to damage to the beach created by climate-change related sea-level rise and erosion, the turtles return to find a cliff they cannot climb, or when they do, perish when trying to return to the water after nesting. And it gets worse according to KAUST Professor of Marine Ecology Carlos M. Duarte, a newly elected member of the Extreme E scientific advisory board. 

"Turtle nests get flooded due to rising sea levels, drastically reducing the annual populations of turtles that do, somehow, defy the odds to survive. In 2019, for example, there was a 90 percent mortality of eggs due to flooding of the nests. For an already endangered species, this is an existential threat," Duarte said.

KAUST Distinguished Professor of Marine Ecology Carlos Duarte takes part in a dedication ceremony at Ras Baridi. Photo courtesy of Extreme E.

As a new racing series, Extreme E supports the protection of endangered species such as the green sea turtle and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. Both species are under threat for a variety of reasons including entanglement in fishing gear; the Illegal trade of eggs and turtle shells; coastal development on nesting beaches; and plastic debris.

"This series is of course about thrilling racing, but we are also shining a spotlight on climate and environmental crises happening all over the world and trying to make a lasting difference. The Red Sea is home to some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and we have worked closely with the Ba'a Foundation to identify this important project," Alejandro Agag, Founder and CEO of Extreme E, said.

Research conference in the Red Sea

To kick off the racing season, and to raise awareness about conservation efforts in Saudi Arabia, Extreme E hosted a two-day research conference aboard the St. Helena. Docked offshore close to Ras Baridi, academics, scientists and doctoral students from KAUST, NEOM and Oxford presented findings on a range of topics.

KAUST Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Associate Director of the Clean Combustion Research Center Mani Sarathy.

Oxford Professor of Climate Science, Richard Washington, opened the conference with a short address to participants, followed by lectures from KAUST faculty Carlos Duarte and Mani Sarathy, and from doctoral student Altynay Kaidarova. The following day saw presentations from the NEOM Executive Director of Hydrogen Roland Kaeppner, and KAUST Research Scientist Shannon Klein.

KAUST doctoral student Altynay Kaidarova speaks during the Extreme E research conference aboard the RMV St. Helena. Photo courtesy of Extreme E.

The floating conference, in partnership with the Ba'a Foundation, held a beach dedication and cleanup activity at Ras Baridi. Drivers and their teams joined Extreme E leadership to clear away trash and take part in a signing ceremony between Extreme E and the Ba'a Foundation. Dubbed the Legacy Programme, Extreme E pledged support for turtle conservation in Saudi Arabia, before heading off to AlUla for two days of racing.

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