It’s Wednesday as I write this column. Sometime today my personal hero, Greta Thunberg, will come ashore at Coney Island after a mythic 14-day sailboat ride across the Atlantic. The self-declared Asperger’s teen from Sweden is the organizer of Fridays for the Future School Strike, now a global movement intended to raise awareness of the climate crisis.
Disavowing commercial air travel to make a statement about releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, she sailed from Plymouth, England, to New York City and held a series of climate meetings on Malizia II , an ocean racing sailboat. The boat is captained by a German skipper, Boris Herrmann, from Hamburg, a renowned ocean racer in his own right.
No luxury cruiser, the Malizia II is a stripped-down, high-tech marvel. The interior, however, has no toilet, only two bunk beds, a computer/electronics panel, and a couple of bean bags for the two-person crew. Designed for speed, the boat can fly along at 35-40 knots – about 45 mph top speed. For those that sail, that’s positively insane. Most typical cruising sailboats go somewhere around 8-12 knots.
On Greta’s ride, the occasional Twitter post showed her sometimes sailing in light winds, but mostly flying along at 30 kt, down enormous 10-foot ocean waves on the edge of storms from the nascent Atlantic hurricane season. By anyone’s standards, it was epic – the true flight of a tiny Valkyrie, hoping to save the world from itself.
Greta is only 16, yet she has managed to capture the attention of the public around the world.
Well, some of the public. I asked seniors in my design clinic – about 70 of them – if they had ever heard of her. None had. I wasn’t stunned. I know what a bubble the senior year of college creates, and I still feel passionately about them and want them to succeed.
So I grabbed them by the collective ear and had them pull up Greta’s journey on the web. Using the web app, Windy.com, one can see the route taken along with Twitter and Instagram posts from their journey.
What’s wild about Windy.com is not the obvious, easily graspable GPS waypoint route across the Atlantic. That technology was there 20 or 30 years ago. Windy.com gives a full spectrum view of wind, waves, clouds and rain across the entire planet. With it, the skipper was able to avoid storms, find the most favorable winds, and deliver Greta safe and sound to Coney Island. All in real time. No scratchy Weather Service voiceovers or guesswork. We can know the condition of the entire Atlantic ocean at a glance.
For those wondering, the point I made to my students was not just my admiration for her courage. And for the record, to her detractors making the small-minded argument regarding other people flying to support her, I have a term to describe you – craven cowards.
But to my students, I pointed out – look at this. We are rapidly getting to the point where we actually can tell quickly about the health of our entire planet at a glance. Every day, regardless of who is in office, the sensor networks grow. All it takes to cure your ignorance is to take a look.
The other point I made to my students was this: It’s awesome. We hear so much about the corruption of information on the web; deep fakes and whatnot. But there is a rising tide of deep truth that is also coming.
If you plug into this, you can sail above the negativity that surrounds you in the press.
A new world may be struggling to be born. But it is happening. And it is incumbent on all of us educators to be aware of it, and equip our students with the skills to make sense of it. Now.
To track Greta’s voyage, go here: http://borisherrmannracing.com.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.