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Celebrating Sixty Years of Polar Science

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Though it’s extensive logistics capability, BAS facilities access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation . It celebrates 60 years of successful science this year.

As its new research ship – the RRS Sir David Attenborough – headed off to Antarctica for a new season of science, Senior Lab Manager, Elaine Fitzcharles, explains what is involved in creating and managing a state-of-the-art floating laboratory.

The UK has a long history of Antarctic discovery and scientific endeavor and the British Antarctic Survey was formally established in 1962, but has evolved in size and scope significantly since then. It now operates in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic.

Carrying out world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions requires extensive and specialist logistic capabilities and know-how. BAS employs around 500 people in scientific, operations and support roles with expertise in a diverse range of disciplines. It has five research stations in the Antarctic, including two on Subantarctic South Georgia, along with a research station in the Arctic funded by NERC and managed and operated by BAS. It also has many vessels and vehicles, including the ice-strengthened Royal Research Ship - RRS Sir David Attenborough, and a fleet of specially adapted aircraft and vehicles. Its polar research infrastructure serves its own scientists, as well as others from the international scientific community. Staying at the forefront of exploration in these regions also demands top quality research equipment.

Science at sea

The RRS Sir David Attenborough is one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world. The stateof- the-art ship is designed to support scientific research in extreme environments. A wide range of specialist scientific facilities, instruments and laboratories enable studies of the ocean, seafloor, ice and atmosphere

Elaine Fitzcharles, Senior Lab Manager, oversees development and operation of all laboratory facilities in within the BAS portfolio. She and her team were responsible for equipping the new ship’s labs. She now heads management of supply and smooth running of the onboard labs during expeditions.

“In terms of facilities, the RRS Sir David Attenborough is more of a floating research station than a research ship,” she remarked. “Its capacity is amazing. We have on-board facilities that we’ve never had previously. And it can go out to sea for longer than any of our other vessels, which opens up the possibility for us to go to areas that we've never been to before.

“The ship provides a really good platform for launching remote vehicles, such as drones, unmanned air vehicles, and auto subs etc..” she continued. “These can reach areas further afield without effecting a significant increase in energy use, which is key for us.”

Antarctica is one of the very few places on the planet where you can still find some natural things that people have never seen before.

“It is tremendously promising to be able to go to new places, to be able to look under the ice and see what is on the seabed,” said Elaine. “As a Biologist, it is really exciting to know that we have the capacity to do things we've never done before with the new facilities on-board. Our scientists can do more analysis on the ship. So, we can now analyse fresh material, rather than having to preserve it. And the scientists can optimize the productivity of their time through longer cruises.”

“Equipping the ship has been interesting for me because I was previously used to working on labs on land, “she remarked. “You need to understand the terminology connected with ships, which is entirely different. And there are different rules and regulations that sometimes require expert interpretation.”

Working on the waves

Equipment for the laboratory had to be carefully selected and secured with the ship’s motion in mind. “One of the biggest practical considerations with any equipment is that you've got to really take the movement, as well as the vibration of the ship into account,” Elaine explained. “As a ship, it's a very stable platform, but it does still move.”

There are certain pieces of equipment that cannot be used or prove very difficult to use onboard a ship. Things like balances aren’t practical because there isn’t enough stability for them. All equipment in the lab must be fastened down. And any chemicals used in research must be held in place.

“It's a different way of working that requires a great deal of preparation,” said Elaine. ‘We need to make sure that the scientists have everything they need with them on the expedition.”

Through deep consideration of their needs and the challenges that their scientists face, and the environmental issues of working within the Antarctic Treaty, in particular, BAS have gathered experience in sustainable science.

“We often get approached by other scientists asking what is best to purchase in consumables for durability and the environment,” said Elaine. “There are certain things that we cannot take on an expedition. For example, elemental mercury, which is used in some thermometers. Things like that add a level of complexity into planning science.”

“One of the biggest practical considerations with any equipment is that you've got to really take the movement, as well as the vibration of the ship into account.”

Compact lab design

Size and space are particularly limited on a ship with no option to physically extend facilities. Even though the RRS Sir David Attenborough is a much bigger vessel than The British Antarctic Survey’s previous research ships (RRS Ernest Shackleton and RRS James Clark Ross), size is still limited.

“We needed to ensure we make the very best use of the space that we have onboard during development, as well as in everyday use, so equipping the ship’s laboratory as compactly as possible was an issue,” Elaine said. “In addition, we have purposefully futureproofed. This ship is designed to serve science for the next 25- 30 years. So, we needed to make sure that we include the right things for its future.”

Maintaining lab equipment in a marine environment Maintenance of equipment requires extra considerations when operating an ocean-borne lab.

“You can't bring an engineer to the ship when it is on an expedition, so, you need to make sure that the scientists onboard have adequate stocks of consumables, any spare- and service parts, as well as full-service manuals,” she said. “It is essential to have really good support from suppliers in the UK with any repairs that might be necessary while the scientists are out at sea. Our ship's crew are highly skilled, so their skills are available onboard, but they need the support of the suppliers to know how to complete certain repairs. And if a piece of equipment fails, they could potentially lose an entire season of science, which is a significant blow. They need to be able to trust that they will be able to deliver the science.”

“Reliability is key. We need reliable suppliers. We need to know that things will work. That things will be where they need to be when necessary. We must be able to trust what we're sending out onboard,” she continued. “At the ‘end-of-the day’, we are responsible for protecting people's safety, therefore, reliability in everything is fundamental.”

Restricted access

The most significant challenge for Elaine and her team is the necessity to work remotely - managing science from Cambridge, in the UK, with limited access to the actual vessel.

“We have access to the ship twice a year when it is in the UK,” explained Elaine. “We have to make sure that we have everything planned and prepared for that access. Beyond that, we also provide continual support to people on the ship and stations as well, but the distance is a challenge. It is what makes it interesting, but it is nonetheless challenging. And we also face restrictions in terms of weather, which can require changes in our plans at the last minute.”

“In addition, COVID-19 has been a particular challenge, in terms of trying to move people from one side of the planet to the other,” she added. “We're still experiencing the effects of the pandemic and have to consider how to get people on and off and keep them COVID-safe?”

Testing equipment onboard

The RRS Sir David Attenborough has been carrying out polar science trials to test the ship’s science capabilities throughout February and March.

“The shipwas doing polar water trials this year, which means that the scientists onboard will test the capability of the ship to ensure that we have the best platform for science going forward.”

Onboard the ship are experts in physical oceanography, pelagic- and deep benthic biologies, who will be investigating life in the water column, as well as life on the sea floor, respectively. While others will be exploring ‘blue carbon’ – carbon that is captured in the ocean. Another group on the ship will be researching the influence of trace metals, like iron, on polar biology. In addition, oceanographic data will be collected throughout the Antarctic research season, so that BAS can see how currents are changing and monitor changes in temperature and salinity.

“It’s very much trying to see what's happening in Antarctica, because that has an impact on the rest of the world,” said Elaine. “Everything is linked in some way to climate change whether its monitoring what's happening, or whether we're looking at how things have changed, or how things can adapt.”

“We will be collecting a lot of samples – seawater, sediment samples from the seabed, and any invertebrates in the water. Occasionally, we get some fish, but it's mostly marine invertebrates. We need to know what we have to understand the current ecosystem,” said Elaine. “We will also be bringing everything back from the stations that is collected throughout the year - plants, more sediment, material like feathers from sea birds, samples from seals, such as scats, and penguin guano. And, of course, ice, as well, this time.”

Preserving samples

For more complex analyses, many samples need to be preserved and brought back to the UK, or elsewhere for other international collaborations, for further study.

“We have to bring back samples at -80°C because Antarctic organisms are highly adapted to living in the cold. Storage at -20°C does not deactivate their enzymes and the sample material will degrade,” explained Elaine. “Some of the organisms may still be alive at -20°C (in hibernation state). So, it's vital for us to have -80°C preservation as a capability, particularly as more advanced analyses are now required.”

“As we've invested a lot of time and money for people to collect these samples, we need to make sure we can provide the best conditions to bring them back to the UK,” she added. “We need ultimate reliability. When we chose - 80°C freezers for the ship’s lab, we looked for energy efficiency and dual compressors for top reliability in performance, because if we have an issue, we’re limited in what we can do. So we’ve had to balance those two against each other - Energy efficiency is key to us, and the dual compressor system provides additional security.”

BAS has at least two-decades-worth of material stored in -80°C freezers.

“I think the oldest material we have is approximately 20- years-old,” said Elaine. “So, that's a lot of science that we keep! It's a significant record. It reflects the value of what people do in terms of long-term monitoring studies to really understand how organisms in the Antarctic in particular are being affected by temperature changes and changes in CO2 levels, explore how they are affecting their metabolism, and investigating their genetics to try and understand the impact on key species, like Krill.”

“Krill is the fundamental basis of the food chain for all the higher predators and it's a vital area that we do a lot of long-term research in,” she continued. “The samples must come back at -80°C, or it will degrade. It degrades the minute you take it out of the freezer. Being able to bring material back and store it at -80°C has allowed us to do science that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do because of the organisms we work with.”

Storage for maximum scientific value

The RRS Sir David Attenborough has Marine Engineers, Data Managers and IT specialists on-board, to ensure that the vessel delivers its best. And that anything and everything collected…from samples to data…. is properly stored, so that it has the most scientific value.

“To operate something on this scale, you need a full and diverse team to make sure that you're getting the best value for money for what you are doing from it,” said Elaine. “We have to make sure we integrate really well with the different teams and with suppliers, but it's a very, very exciting time for us to actually see the ship and the team fulfil their potential.”

Celebrating Sixty Years of Polar Science


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