Confronting the likely effects of climate change can feel overwhelming. One recent graduate in atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington is channeling that fear into an ambitious athletic feat.
Dawson grew up sailing and doing other water sports in Port Townsend. She also raced crew at UW. But the trek she’s getting ready to do this June is completely different.
“2,400 miles across the Pacific, from California to Hawaii, in the name of climate change and plastic pollution,” Dawson said.
She’s taking part with three other women in an event called the Great Pacific Race. They’ll cross the Pacific garbage patch, which she plans to document.
The world record for an all-female team is just over 50 days. To beat that time, the team has to be completely self-sufficient and carry all of their food and gear, including spare seats and oars. There will be a race boat trailing them in case of an emergency. But they’ll row the whole way in two hour shifts, around the clock, even at night.
“That I think will be a very interesting experience. Both beautiful and scary,” she says. “To be out in the middle of the night, nothing around us, and have it be completely dark and black and just be there rowing and rowing and rowing.”
They’ll be sleep-deprived, with a bucket for a toilet and no showers, only ocean water to get clean. She hasn’t yet met two of her teammates, except electronically. The crew was put together by the race organizers.
Dawson is training about four hours a day and working on fundraising and publicity. She needs to raise $20,000 by the end of May to cover her supplies and entry in the race.
She admits some people have said she’s a bit crazy.
“Sometimes yeah,” she says with a laugh. “I’m excited though. I think it’s going to be an amazing opportunity to take on this huge challenge.”
She’s motivated by her drive to combine her passions as an avid athlete and a young scientist headed into a PhD program in climate science this fall. She’s excited to see what it’s like to live right on the surface of the ocean.
“We will spend over a month at the interface of the ocean and atmosphere,” Dawson says. “And this is a really special place in terms of the climate system. This is where gases exchange, where heat exchanges – and we will be at the interface experiencing this for a very long period of time.”
She is also eager to see all the wildlife they will likely encounter.
"Lots of whales, lots of dolphins, different fish, birds -- I can’t wait to experience it," she says. "Spending that much time out in the middle of the ocean, you're bound to see some pretty stunning views and some pretty amazing creatures."
But her number-one motivation – and the thing that unites her with her teammates – is the drive to raise awareness about the perils of the carbon pollution that causes global warming. Their race is a call for action to try and slow or stop human-caused climate change.
“I think that this is a huge issue that’s going to have a huge impact on our future. And I think that we need to be pressuring our political leaders that now is the time to take action,” she says.
For Dawson, all the effort she is putting into this race is a bit of an analogy for the kind of human power she thinks will be needed to reverse the trend on climate change.
She starts training with her teammates in Monterrey, California in May. Their boat is called Ripple Effect. The race begins in June.