Making a splash

RRS Sir David Attenborough

Linda Capper MBE describes the launch of Britain’s new polar research ship, and looks forward to future scientific discoveries

On a blazing hot Saturday in July, the hull of the new polar research ship for Britain entered the water for the first time. The launch of hull number 1390, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, is an important milestone in the construction of this state-of-the-art polar research vessel.

The UK and global maritime engineering

Professor Dame Jane Francis and Sir David Attenborough push the launch button. Photo: Cammell Laird / British Antarctic Survey

In the three years since Cammell Laird successfully beat off competitors from shipyards in Europe, Korea, Singapore and elsewhere, production has been full steam ahead. Commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for operation by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), this new ship not only pushes the boundaries of science and engineering but, according to Cammell Laird’s CEO John Syvret, also represents the re-emergence of the Merseyside shipyard as a global maritime engineering company.

In May 2016, Science Minister Jo Johnson confirmed that the name of the £200 million polar research ship would be RRS Sir David Attenborough. In October that year, Sir David performed the keel-laying ceremony with a theatrical flourish that delighted all who watched.

Since then, hundreds of shipyard workers – engineers, welders, apprentices and others – have toiled round the clock to assemble over a million pieces of steel, installing engines, a scientific moon pool and ‘plug-and-play laboratories’. In August 2017, the 899 tonne steel stern block, equivalent in weight of 71 London double decker buses and more than 23 metres long and 24 metres wide, travelled by barge from Hebburn-based shipyard A&P Tyne (Newcastle) to the Birkenhead construction hall. In a remarkable engineering collaboration, this block connected to the rest of the hull with millimetre precision.

Festival atmosphere

So, on a sunny July day this year there was a festival atmosphere at the Cammell Laird shipyard. As the Mersey tide reached its optimal conditions around noon, Sir David Attenborough and BAS Director Professor Dame Jane Francis pushed the launch button. Over 3,000 people – scientists, engineers, workers and their families – cheered as the 129 metre, 10,000 tonne hull moved apparently effortlessly down the slipway. The national anthem played. It was emotional for everyone involved in getting the construction this far.

Centre-stage, Sir David addressed the crowds:

As far as I am concerned, to see this magnificent hull with my name on it is the greatest possible honour; and I thank everyone who has been involved in this wonderful enterprise, and wish them huge success when this marvellous ship gets down there in the Antarctic, which we thought was so remote but which, we realise now, is absolutely crucial to the future of all of us.

Across the country and around the world millions of people watched the live TV and web broadcast of an incredible engineering achievement. Among the small team on engineers on board were the captains of the RRS Sir David Attenborough, Ralph Stephens and Will Whatley. For them, this is the beginning of a journey of new scientific discoveries yet to be made.

The polar oceans and global change

The sense of anticipation of what the RRS Sir David Attenborough will deliver is building among the polar science community.

The vast frozen worlds of the polar regions are a major component of the earth’s global climate system. The polar oceans keep our planet cool and supply other oceans with nutrients. But, because of their remoteness and inhospitable nature, data coverage is extremely sparse.

Understanding the polar oceans is critical to understanding the big questions about our global environment. By working together, scientists create observing systems to collect and interpret crucial scientific data that shapes policy, protects the environment and ultimately improves people’s lives. Recent technological advances mean that scientists can now combine high-quality land and ship-based observations with high-quality satellite data from previously inaccessible areas.

Over decades, 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 us understand the marine food chain, and have provided critical scientific information to underpin the sustainable management of fisheries.

Improving our understanding of how the polar oceans influence, and respond to, global change is an urgent mission for polar scientists. These oceans respond to global temperature change; absorb heat and carbon from the atmosphere, including that produced by humans; sustain an abundance of wildlife; and provide food for a hungry world.

Economic significance of the polar oceans

RRS Sir David Attenborough with the superstructure fitted. Photo: Cammell Laird / British Antarctic Survey

These chilly waters are economically significant, and likely to become more so in the future. Reduced Arctic sea ice is opening up access to oil, gas and mineral reserves. It is possible that the Arctic contains more than 20 per cent of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable oil and gas. This issue is the subject of much discussion by national and international governments.

Many species depend on the polar oceans for food and reproduction. Millions of seabirds, whales and fish all rely on the unique biodiversity of the polar oceans for their survival. Humans, too, benefit from the polar-ocean ecosystems: more than seven million tonnes of fish is caught in Arctic waters annually, equivalent to 10 per cent of the global fin-fish catch. The current annual Antarctic krill catch is less than 0.1 per cent of their estimated biomass. The small shrimp-like crustacean has up to 400 trillion individuals.

Polar oceanographers strive to understand changes to ocean ecosystems so that they can model this in a meaningful way. Polar oceans research will help predict the consequences of these changes on, for example, surface ocean productivity, species distributions and food webs, as well as the ecosystem services they provide. Future projections are particularly important because they help refine the policy decision-making processes. Scientific evidence that will emerge from the RRS Sir David Attenborough’s Antarctic and Arctic research missions will be essential for future management of polar ecosystems.

Preparing for the next decades of discovery

While construction of the new ship continues, scientific teams from BAS and universities across the UK are planning two ‘rehearsal cruises’ that will test not just the deployment of scientific equipment but also a new way of working. Future research cruises will be more multidisciplinary than those currently carried out from the BAS-operated RRS James Clark Ross.

Scheduled for early 2020, and after completion of technical sea trials, the first scientific ‘rehearsal’ cruise will take place in the Antarctic, with the Arctic cruise coming later in summer of that year.

The purpose of these cruises is to ensure that the new ship is fully fit-for-purpose to support a broad range of peer-reviewed science. The two cruises will fully test the capability to mount and support large, long duration multidisciplinary science cruises of the type anticipated to be undertaken in future. Each cruise will include a full team of scientists and technicians with the appropriate skills and experience.

Antarctic research cruise

Led by BAS’s Dr Sophie Fielding, the Antarctic rehearsal cruise will run for forty days during January and February 2020 in the Southern Ocean. It will encompass a wide range of scientific activities, with a primary focus on biological and biogeochemical studies, but also including geological, physical oceanographic and atmospheric science projects. The RRS Sir David Attenborough will visit a range of Antarctic marine environments including coastal waters off sub- Antarctic South Georgia, the deep waters of the South Shetland Island trenches, and open-ocean and sea-ice-covered waters of the Weddell Sea east of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Arctic research cruise

Coordinated by Dr Ray Leakey of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), the Arctic rehearsal cruise will begin during summer 2020. The fifty-day cruise, in the Greenland and Norwegian seas, will be split into two or three separate legs. It will encompass a wide range of multidisciplinary science activities with a focus on geological, physical oceanographic and atmospheric science studies in order to complement activities undertaken on the preceding Antarctic rehearsal cruise. The cruise will visit a range of Arctic marine environments including fjordic and coastal waters off Svalbard and east Greenland, and the open-ocean and sea-ice-covered waters of the Fram Strait.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough will enter full service from autumn 2020. To find out more, visit www.bas.ac.uk/attenborough. Linda Capper MBE is Head of Communications at British Antarctic Survey. She leads a joint engagement campaign to promote the scientific and societal benefits of the new polar research ship.