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Professor Richard Washington on Extreme E: “A few words can go a long way”

 

Extreme E stands for more than just exciting racing. As a sport for purpose championship, it also stands for innovation and science. Throughout the race series, a five-member science committee is on hand working on new findings and leading legacy projects on location. In an interview, Professor Richard Washington, who heads up Extreme E’s Scientific Committee provided an insight into the current approach.

 

When asked to join the Extreme E Science Committee, it didn’t take long for Professor Richard Washington, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, to make his decision.

“I needed about 20 seconds,” Professor Washington explains. “It sounded like a wonderful opportunity.”

Seeing the race series as a chance to reach more people when sharing important scientific findings, Prof Washington said “A big part of our day-to-day work is writing scientific papers that get published in journals. Being involved in something like Extreme E which is much more mainstream gives us scientists the platform we dream of. The drivers are the best ambassadors.”

Not only interested in the climate crisis, Professor Washington is also a motorsport enthusiast: “In another life, I would have been an engineer. It is a world I like very much with so much innovation in the sector. This is exactly what we need to solve the climate problem. We need to connect with people who are making a difference.”

To this end, the team pursues two approaches: firstly, they present a key scientific topic for each race. This then becomes familiar to a wide audience.

In addition, the committee is overseeing the legacy programmes. These are projects in the race locations that are specifically designed to raise awareness and improve a problem – what happens exactly varies from place to place. Their aim with these sustainable projects is to leave the location behind in a better way than they entered them.

Legacy Programmes: From forestation to education initiatives

The five-member committee consists of experts from a wide range of disciplines. Professor Washington himself works on climate models and is also an expert on deserts. The first race of Season 2 in Saudi Arabia was therefore more or less a home game for the professor: “We were there for four very busy days,” he explains. Immediately after arriving he headed out into the desert and took in the situation with four-time Dakar winner, Nasser Al-Attiyah.

“The focus was on desert deforestation. This sounds a little strange, because why would you make the desert green?” Washington continues, “However, if you go back just a few decades, there were a lot more trees and vegetation in the desert. A lot of it has been removed.”

This poses a problem for local wildlife and for plants. “You know how it is: on a hot day, you want to sit in the shade of a tree, just like every other living being. In the desert, there aren’t many options. So when you remove these options, you create a very hostile environment.”

Extreme E is also continuing an on-location Legacy Programme to protect turtles from the impact of climate change. “The important factor is sea level. Rising sea levels are making life difficult for turtles by destroying beaches that have been there for thousands of years,” Professor Washington says.

Along with Legacy Programmes activated in the race locations, Extreme E has also set up legacy projects in other countries to help improve the situation in the long term. “In some cases, the Legacy Programmes don’t seem to have any immediate, quantifiable, or tangible benefits. The Legacy programmes, though, are a kind of long-distance run. In Senegal, for example, one million mangroves are being planted. We also work with NGOs and local organizations to keep the project going,” Prof Washingtion explains, recalling Season 1.

 

In some cases, however, the change is immediate, like with the Greenland education programme. “The young people there are learning about climate change, the physics of it, its impacts and what can be done about it,” the Professor says, “I think it’s a wonderful programme because the kids are sitting at one of the most important tipping points of climate change, which is the Greenland ice sheet.”

The locals are the people who know best that the ice is melting: “What they don’t necessarily know is that if all the ice melted, we’d have to say goodbye to a long list of important cities around the world. There are major capitals, in some cases entire nations and states, and islands that would simply be flooded by the rising sea level,” Prof Washington concludes.

Professor Washington believes that climate change is now causing more and more extreme phenomena, such as the forest fires that have affected the racing venue in Sardinia. “For many years, scientists focused on the change in average temperature. We didn’t really deal with the extremes because they’re hard to work with,” he says.  However, “changes in extreme situations are sometimes clearer indicators than the average temperature.” Such events occur more and more frequently – even with seemingly small changes to the global average temperature.

For the Professor, the sport for purpose championship provides an opportunity to raise awareness of such issues directly on the ground and around the world. “It’s important for Extreme E to spread the word.”

The idea is not to force complex, extensive documentation on viewers – but rather simple and clear information: “It’s a snippet here and there during the live broadcast that people will see. Just hearing a few words can go a long way.”

 

A look ahead.

After Season 1 of Extreme E, exciting findings were gathered, but as the motorsport was operating in the pandemic there were a number of challenges which had to be overcome.

At the same time, a strong focus of the planning is on protecting the target locations: “We are very careful about maintaining the areas we work in and making sure we don’t work in environments that are too sensitive. We’re always adapting,” Washington says.

This also applies to the races themselves: “In Greenland, for example, some people assumed that we were racing on the ice. But this was not the case. We drove on the glacier foothills, away from the fragile environment on the ice.”

Now, they are working to overhaul the science department on the ship and get new systems up and running in this new second season. “We have one race behind us and four more to go. At present, we’re developing the programmes for the next races, including Sardinia and South America,” Washington says. “It’s very exciting because the race in Uruguay is related to energy. Here we are looking at different forms of energy and the conversion of energy. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish in Uruguay.”