Sir David Attenborough research ship prepares for second voyage to Antarctica

The director of British Antarctic Survey warned that rising sea levels could hit capital cities around the world, as the RRS Sir David Attenborough prepares for its second voyage to Antarctica.

The £200m polar research ship, home to around 30 crew and up to 60 scientists and support staff, will set sail from Harwich in Essex on Sunday.

It is set to arrive at Rothera Research Station, on the Antarctic peninsula by Christmas for scientists to continue to investigate issues including future sea-level rise and threats to marine biodiversity.

Professor Dame Jane Francis, the Director of British Antarctic Survey, which operates the polar ship, said one thing that scientists are investigating is tipping points, “which is where the earth goes into irreversible change”.

One such tipping point is the west Antarctic ice sheet.

“If that ice sheet does melt, it holds about three to five metres of global sea level rise, so what happens in Antarctica won’t just stay in Antarctica, it will affect us all,” said Professor Francis.

Professor Dame Jane Francis, the Director of British Antarctic Survey, which operates the polar ship RRS Sir David Attenborough. (Sam Russell/ PA)
Professor Dame Jane Francis, the Director of British Antarctic Survey, which operates the polar ship RRS Sir David Attenborough (Sam Russell/ PA)

“Somebody recently said global warming in Antarctica and all the water that melts from Antarctica is coming to a living room near us very soon.”

She said there is “still a lot of work going on to try to tie down when these events will happen but what we do find is when scientists get new results they are bringing them closer and closer to us rather than further and further away”.

“Global sea level is rising quite consistently now, it’s about 3mm to 4mm per year, which doesn’t sound much but that will inundate quite a lot of coastlines around the world,” said Professor Francis.

“And of course, with global warming comes all the storms which will be worse as the sea levels rise.

“But so much of the human population lives around coastal areas and some of the greatest cities are situated on coastal areas, so if the sea level rises only a small amount then that will have a huge impact on populations that live near the coast and on all the functions of the big cities.”

She continued: “Most of the capital cities around the world are actually based on the coast because historically that was the easiest place to get to.

The ship’s Captain William Whatley (Sam Russell/ PA)
The ship’s Captain William Whatley (Sam Russell/ PA)

“So London will be impacted for sure, the Netherlands of course are very low lying anyway, they’re below sea level and they will be impacted. Venice, Italy, practically any major city you can think of on the coastline will be affected.”

She said of the first voyage: “Last year was really a testing year, this year we’re going down to do some really serious science.”

Professor Francis added: “What we really need to do and what I hope comes out of this next voyage is to really understand more about how climate change is affecting Antarctica.”

The ship will use an artificial intelligence system that will recommend the fastest and most fuel-efficient routes between locations, taking into account sea ice, ocean dynamics and weather.

The ship’s Captain William Whatley said they depart from Harwich on Sunday, stopping at Portsmouth to collect the last of the supplies before sailing to the Falklands.

The ship is due to arrive by mid-December, stopping for a few days then travelling on to Rothera Research Station, “our largest research station, on the Antarctic peninsula, and we will be there by Christmas time”.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough at Rothera Research Station. (British Antarctic Survey/ William Clarke/ PA)
The RRS Sir David Attenborough at Rothera Research Station (British Antarctic Survey/PA)

An online poll had suggested that the ship be called Boaty McBoatface, but one of its robotic submarines was given the title instead.

Professor Francis said: “It did bring attention to the ship… but I think the decision to call it Sir David Attenborough was absolutely perfect and it’s a great honour to have a ship with his name on it.”