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Pole position: science at sea

Polar and marine research

Linda Capper MBE discovers how Britain’s new polar research ship will help us make sense of our changing world

When she takes to the seas in 2019 the RRS Sir David Attenborough will usher in the next generation of polar and marine research. With its advanced technologies, this new polar ship will enable scientific investigations that are pivotal to understanding the role the oceans play in influencing regional and global climate change, marine biodiversity, and sustainable management of the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

Transforming the UK’s polar research capability

It was back in 2014 that George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced a £200 million investment to replace the UK’s two ageing polar research ships with a state-of-the-art platform to keep Britain at the forefront of polar science.

Commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), built in Birkenhead at the world-famous Cammell Laird shipyard, and operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), this ship will transform how science in the polar regions is supported.

Professor Dame Jane Francis is Director of BAS. She sees the commission of this ship as an exciting time for UK polar science and recognises that the investment from government and NERC is a strong signal of their commitment to sustaining and promoting the UK’s world-leading capability for polar research.

She says: ‘The last 15–20 years have seen remarkable developments in ship-borne science and technology. Incorporating innovative technologies in a new ice-strengthened research ship will offer a step change in Britain’s capability to deliver bigger and better science. It is fantastic news for our science teams at BAS, for NERC and for our partners within UK universities – and for our international research collaborations.’

Making sense of our changing world

Sir David Attenborough at the new polar research ship keel laying

Sir David Attenborough at the new polar research ship keel laying. Photo: Mills Media/Cammell Laird

The vast, ice-covered polar regions are a major component of the earth’s global climate system. The high contrast in reflective properties of white, ice-covered areas and surrounding dark sea surface plays an important role in regulating regional and global climate. The extremely cold and salty waters around Antarctica sink deep into the ocean, driving a conveyor belt of oceanic heat around the globe. The Southern Ocean is very effective at absorbing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a result of ocean mixing caused by strong westerly winds around the continent.

But, because of its remoteness and inhospitable nature, the Southern Ocean has the sparsest data coverage of any of the world’s oceans. The data gap is regularly singled out as a weak point in computer models used to simulate future climate change. We can, however, be optimistic about closing this gap. Recent technological advances mean that scientists can now combine ship-based observations with high-quality data from inaccessible areas.

Jane Francis adds: ‘Understanding the polar oceans is absolutely key to understanding the big questions about our global environment. Over decades our ship-borne studies have shed new light on the consequences of the shrinking sea ice for ocean circulation, climate and the ecosystem.

‘Surveys of the deep ocean have yielded vital discoveries about marine biodiversity and informed an international census of marine life. Long-term studies have helped understand the marine food chain, and have proven to be critical for sustainable management of commercial fisheries. We are advancing our understanding, but there continues to be an urgent need for more detailed investigations if we want to provide the insight required to help people live with, and adapt to, environmental change.’

Intelligent instruments and marine robotics During its polar missions RRS Sir David Attenborough will take advantage of UK marine robotics capability through deployment of a new generation of autonomous and remotely operated vehicles. Satellite links will transmit mission instructions and capture data when these vehicles are at the ocean surface. Ocean gliders and submersible vehicles are being developed to enable scientists to access real-time data efficiently, which optimises use of time and research resources. Data from these deployments will shed new light on what happens when ocean water melts Antarctic ice shelves, and how this may influence future sea-level rise.

Clever technology controls the ocean gliders. Instead of using a conventional propeller, these smart vehicles ‘fly’ though the ocean using an expandable oil-filled bladder to change their buoyancy. As liquid is pumped into or out of the bladder, the volume of the glider changes while its mass remains the same. As a result, its density changes and allows the device to rise or sink through the water. Its wings turn this vertical motion into forwards motion.

Underwater vehicles, capable of travelling without direct control from the ship, are equipped with sensors to collect data from locations that may be dangerous or impossible for humans. Pre-programmed to travel underneath floating ice shelves, and at the calving fronts of glaciers, these vehicles have the potential to aid investigations of the rapid ice-mass loss in the Amundsen Sea, one of Antarctica’s fastest-shrinking areas.

The now famous Autosub Long Range (ALR) known as Boaty McBoatface was developed by the National Oceanography Centre. Fitted with the latest oceanographic sensors, battery technology and advanced satellite communications, the ALR is programmed with route instructions, what to measure, and what depths to go to.

Advanced engineering and technology Polar marine engineers together with scientists from BAS and UK universities were deeply involved in the design brief for the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Rolls Royce are supplying the new ship with four main engines, two nine-cylinder and two six-cylinder models of the same family. This configuration of different engine sizes allows for efficient operation across the wide range of conditions that the ship is likely to encounter.

As well as the requirements for powerful engines for navigation through ice, there is a scientific need for engines to run as silently as possible, and to avoid sweep-down of bubbles around the hull that could interfere with acoustic sensors. Extremely low underwater radiated noise is essential to avoid interference with survey equipment, and to minimise disturbance to marine mammals or fish distribution.

On-board innovation

An ocean glider being deployed in Antarctica

An ocean glider being deployed in Antarctica. Photo: British Antarctic Survey / Mike Meredith

The wonderfully named scientific moon pool – a 4 m × 4 m vertical shaft running through the ship and open to both the air (at deck level) and the sea (at the hull) – enables scientists to safely deploy and retrieve oceanographic instruments in the rough seas that are so characteristic of the polar oceans.

Echo sounding, technology that has been used in shipboard navigation for decades to determine water depth, will be used by marine geologists to find out more about the topography of the seafloor. A multi-beam echo sounder will send out hundreds of acoustic pulses at different angles, creating a swath of information on water depth as the ship passes. Swaths of data are used to create maps to identify the best sub-sea locations for taking sediment cores for studies looking at how ancient glaciers moved over the coastal areas off Antarctica and the Arctic.

Environmental credentials

RRS Sir David Attenborough is designed to conform to stringent environmental regulations that are part of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Polar Code. This is the main international convention to prevent the pollution of the marine environment by ships, whether by accident or during routine operations. An on-board ballast water system, fitted with an approved treatment plant, and a ‘Green Passport’ feature in the application of the IMO guidelines.

It’s all in a name

In May 2016, following a public poll, the Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson selected RRS Sir David Attenborough as the name of the new ship.

It is an excellent choice. During his long career, the renowned naturalist and broadcaster has engaged people throughout the world in the wonder of the Arctic and the Antarctic. Landmark television series such as Life in the Freezer and Frozen Planet brought the importance of the polar regions sharply into focus for many of us. The new ship will carry his name for decades, as it fulfils its mission to make new discoveries that will change how we view our world.

In October 2017 Sir David started the ‘keel laying’ process by initiating the lift of the first of 97 hull units onto the construction berth. He relished the opportunity to be part of this exciting construction milestone, saying: ‘The polar regions are not only critical for understanding the natural world but they also have an enormous appeal for journalists, broadcasters and the public. I have had several opportunities to experience the power of these places first hand. This new ship will ensure that scientists have access to these enigmatic regions to uncover secrets that we can only imagine at this point. Scientists working on this new ship will inform everyone about our changing world for generations to come.’

Find out more about this new ship at www.bas.ac.uk/attenborough. Linda Capper has visited Antarctica nine times and has travelled on polar research ships.