Polar research ship

Following a 12-month tender process, which involved bids from companies in the UK, Europe and the Far East, the UK Government and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) have chosen Cammell Laird, a shipyard in Merseyside, as the preferred bidder to build the country’s newest and most advanced polar research ship to date.

In a move that is expected to secure 400 jobs and create 60 apprenticeships, the shipyard intends to cut steel in autumn 2016 and deliver the ship by 2019. The vessel has a dual mission: to set the standard for both UK shipping expertise and polar research.

When announcing the news, universities and science minister Jo Johnson said: "As a one nation government we are investing in science capital on a record scale.

"This £200m investment secures the UK’s position as a world leader in polar research and provides a major boost to shipbuilding in the North West."

It is this double boost that is at the centre of the wave of excitement that surrounds the news, as UK Marine Industries Alliance chairman Gregory Darling explains.

"[This provides an] opportunity to highlight the often unnoticed ship and boat building capabilities of the UK. The ship will quite literally provide a platform that demonstrates the modern maritime capabilities of the UK to the rest of the world.

"Ultimately, UK taxpayer money is to be used to not only support UK maritime jobs but also showcase the commercial capabilities of the UK in building complex ships that can be used to help grow UK maritime industries."

The UK’s first moon pool

The platform that Darling describes has been classed as state-of-the-art, but what makes it so?

One of the most notable aspects for British Antarctic Survey (BAS) marine geophysicist Dr Robert Larter will be the ability to go to areas of the ocean that have previously been off limits; the ship’s specification states it will be able break ice up to 1m thick when travelling at three knots, and spend up to 60 days in sea-ice.

"It will be a more ice-capable ship," Larter says. "So it will be able to go places we haven’t been able to go in the past. It’s a bigger, more powerful ship."

Aside from its size, the ship, which will be operated by BAS on behalf of NERC, will be home to a moon pool – the first of its kind for the UK. This allows instruments to be deployed through an opening in the hull, rather than over the side.

"Often in sea ice, you can’t put things over the side of the ship because of risk to the equipment; you could drop it on the ice," explains Larter. "Also, the ice can close in around the wire, so a hole through the middle of the ship provides a safe environment.

"It will be a more ice-capable ship," Larter says. "So it will be able to go places we haven’t been able to go in the past."

"The moon pool is totally enclosed within a scientific hangar area. That enables us to do a lot of things. It’s a new thing and it is a trend you can see in polar ship building."

Moving into uncharted territory

In what is another first for UK polar research, the ship will be capable of carrying helicopters – something Larter describes as a major step forward – as well as accommodating up to 60 researchers and providing resupplies to five UK research stations in the Antarctic.

"Right now, there is no UK helicopter support in Antarctica, which is part of the justification for having it on the new ship. It means that if the need arises to do some commissioned research, the ship is much more attractive to commercial charters," he says.

While these elements alone represent a significant leap, the new ship will also take advantage of the ongoing development of robotic technologies, such as NERC’s autonomous submarine, Autosub, and other remotely operated vehicles. As with the ship’s size and ice-breaking power, this will open up avenues to environments that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Robotic submarines and marine gliders will collect data on ocean conditions and marine biology and deliver it to scientists working in the ship’s onboard laboratories.

This means that studies looking at the seafloor and ice shelves, as well as glacial features on the seafloor and how they provide different habitats for different organisms, will become more precise – all feeding into crucial research on the earth’s climate, sea-level rise and impact of environmental change on marine ecosystems.

"Changes in both the Antarctic and Artic marine ecosystems affect the UK’s environment and economy, particularly in industries such as fishing and tourism," said NERC chief executive Professor Duncan Wingham in a statement.

Larter adds: "From a ship you obviously can’t get any visual impression of the seafloor. You can take samples by dangling things on wires, but you can’t sample as precisely as you can with the remotely operated vehicles."

"Changes in both the Antarctic and Artic marine ecosystems affect the UK’s environment and economy."

As Darling notes, these factors combined will generate "one of the most sophisticated floating research laboratories operating in the polar regions".

A ‘once in a generation’ opportunity

While the scientific case for the ship has been made, the choosing of a UK-based shipyard represents another shot in the arm for UK shipping, coming as it does after the publication of the Maritime Growth Study, which aims to chart a growth course for the industry.

Darling explains that, even though "the UK has led scientific research in the Antarctic for decades", the challenge is keeping this at the forefront of people’s minds.

And even though the new polar ship is just one piece of that jigsaw, it is a significant one that should not be overlooked, says Larter.

"It’s going to a very big change for us, [but] also a bit of a revolution," he says.

Cammell Laird signed contracts in November, marking the beginning of the process, but the ship is still some four years away from entering service.

Despite this, thoughts have turned to the future and a plan is starting to take shape.

"There is a transition plan being worked on at the moment," explains Larter. "We’re aiming for it to be delivered so we can spend most of the year doing trials.

"First of all, there will be ship trials followed by scientific equipment trials, to make sure that we’re happy with everything before it goes south to the Antarctic."

All being well, the ship will take on some of the research currently undertaken by the RRS James Clark Ross, launched in 1990, and the RRS Ernest Shackleton, launched in 1995.

So the baton passes to Cammell Laird. "This is a once-in-a-generation thing," concludes Larter. The challenge to take the polar explorer from concept to reality has begun.