British research vessel completes field tests in ice | Polarjournal
The first Antarctic season for the RSS “Sir David Attenborough” was also the first real-life field test of the new British research vessel. Overall, both the British Antarctic Survey and the owner NERC (National Environmental Research Council) are satisfied with the results so far. Video: British Antarctic Survey YouTube channel

The UK, like many other polar nations, has invested heavily in its polar infrastructure in recent years. This includes the construction of the latest polar research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough. Built according to the latest findings and equipped with numerous tools and instruments, the ship has been able to test its capabilities in practice in Antarctica over the past few months. The tests were successful, but also showed the limits of performance.

Overall, British Antarctic Survey BAS said the RRS Sir David Attenborough completed the tests successfully and within expected limits. They measured performance at each strength level in the ice and compared it to the modeled results. Ralph Stevens, the ship’s captain, said in a BAS press release: “Overall, we’re really pleased with the ship’s performance in ice trials. In some trials it actually performed better than we expected.” The ship and its crew are now on their way back to the UK and meanwhile the data collected is being analysed.

The “Sir David Attenborough” was tested in the course of its supply missions for 10 days between the British station Rothera and the Thwaites glacier. The parameters and performance of the ship were also recorded during the missions. This revealed the limitations of the ship. Map: Dr Michael Wenger via Google Earth

On the one hand, the Attenborough was extensively tested during ten days. To do this, the experts on board used satellite data to search for suitable areas between the Antarctic Peninsula and the Bellingshausen Sea. This is also where the ship had to complete most of its missions. This included supplying the British Antarctic stations and a supply cruise for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. The prevailing conditions at the test locations were meticulously recorded and the ship’s performance in terms of icebreaking, manoeuvrability, engine power and several other aspects was measured and compared with the values predicted in models. In order to be able to accurately calculate precise values for icebreaking performance and the energy expended, the ship was tested primarily in fast ice. This is the part of the pack ice that is connected to the coast and hardly moves. “The thing that surprised us most was how comfortable the ship was while breaking through the sea ice,” Stevens explained. “The bow breaks the ice in a completely different way to our previous vessels, and is much quieter than expected.”

Despite the enthusiasm and the positive test results of the ship, not all missions went according to plan, as is almost traditional in Antarctica. For when the ship and crew should have been delivering material for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration in the Bellingshausen Sea, they encountered a large area of two-year-old pack ice more than two meters thick in Stange Sound with a dense snow cover. As a Polar Class 5 (PC5) vessel, the Attenborough can cruise consistently at up to 3 knots (5.6 km/h) in medium, one-year ice. But the conditions in Stange Sound proved too difficult for the ship. It was possible to sail in for about 15 kilometers, and the French passenger icebreaker Le Commandant Charcot also provided assistance. But in the end, the ice got the upper hand and the team on board had to move to another, more distant location to supply the research groups. Captain John Harper, who commanded the Attenborough during the tests, said: “While it was frustrating we couldn’t reach our drop-off point, encountering these conditions has been an incredible learning experience and has given us the opportunity to push the ship to its limits and really see what it can do.”

Britain’s polar research flagship is actually owned by the UK’s National Research Council and operated by BAS. The 129-meter-long, 15,000-ton vessel can accommodate up to 60 researchers and is equipped with the latest measuring instruments to advance British polar research. Photo: BAS

With the data obtained, the ship will be refitted and the remaining scientific equipment installed when it returns in June. These will then be tested before the ship resumes its duties as a multidisciplinary research and supply platform. In the coming Antarctic season, further practical tests are to be carried out and, at the same time, initial research missions will be supported. This is where BAS intends to make special use of the ship. BAS Director Professor Dame Jane Francis said: “Following COP26 in Glasgow last year, the world is more aware than ever of the urgent need to understand our changing world, and the RRS Sir David Attenborough has a vital role to play in that.”

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Featured image: RRS Sir David Attenborough in the ice (Photo: Jamie Anderson / BAS)

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