What’s big and red and costs £200 million? The answer is the new flagship of Britain’s polar research fleet complete with helideck and robot submarines. On Friday at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne announced that the British government had authorized the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to go ahead with the design and construction of a new state-of-the-art vessel for polar research and to maintain the British presence in Antarctica and the South Atlantic.

Currently, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) operates two research ships in Antarctica: the RRS James Clark Ross, which was launched 1990, and the RRS Ernest Shackleton, launched 1995. According to the NERC, both these vessels are now reaching the end of their service lives and a larger, more advanced ship is needed that is better able to break through ice packs.

The £200 million (US$336 million) for the yet-unnamed ship is part of a £1.1 billion (US$1.8 billion) annual capital budget for science and research over the next five years. Though the exact design specifications are still under development, the new ship, which will be used in both the Antarctic and the Arctic, will be 129.6 m (425 ft) long, 25 m (82 ft) abeam, have a draught of 7.5 m (24 ft), displace 12,790 tonnes (14,098 tons), and have 4,200 cubic meters (148,000 cubic feet) of cargo space.

Inside the bright-red hull, it will carry 60 scientists and support staff, and will be able to break its way through ice up to 2 m (6.5 ft) thick when steaming at 3 knots (3.4 mph, 5.5 km/h). This not only increases the reach of the ship in the ice pack, but also the times of the year it can be used. In addition, it will have an operational range of 80 days or 24,000 nm (27,000 mi, 44,000 km).

The NERC says that when the ship enters service in 2019, it will be the most advanced research ship afloat with flexible laboratory configurations, the ability to use containerized laboratories, environmental monitoring systems for studying the air, deep water regions, and the seabed, a helideck and hanger for deploying helicopters. It will also have the ability to act as a central hub from which it will control autonomous ocean vehicles, UAVs, robotic submarines, and underwater gliders. In addition, the ship will resupply the five UK Antarctic research stations operated by the British Antarctic Survey.

“Understanding the polar oceans is absolutely key to understanding the big questions about our global environment,” says Professor Mike Meredith, Leader of the BAS Polar Oceans science program and Deputy Director of Science. “During the last 100 years British scientists have made incredible discoveries about our planet – for example, we now know that the Southern Ocean is a vast natural sink that absorbs carbon dioxide and regulates our climate. Our long-term studies have helped understand the marine food chain, and have proven to be critical for sustainable management of commercial fisheries. Surveys of the deep ocean have yielded vital discoveries about marine biodiversity and informed an international census of marine life.

"With recent advances in technology we've been able to combine ship-based science with robotic instruments to investigate what happens when ocean water melts Antarctic ice shelves and how it may influence future sea-level rise. In the Arctic, our ship-borne studies have shed new light on the consequences of the shrinking sea ice for ocean circulation, climate and the ecosystem. This new ship will build on this legacy of internationally outstanding research, and will, lead to ground-breaking and exciting discoveries that will ultimately generate new knowledge that benefits our society and economy.”

Source: NERC