Sir David Attenborough research ship facing launch delay

Thomas Moore, science correspondent

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) may be forced to cancel ship-based polar science for at least the next year after delays to its new vessel, the Sir David Attenborough, Sky News has learned.

The £200m ship - which the public had voted to be named Boaty McBoatface - was due to enter service in October, following sea trials.

But Sky News has seen a letter sent to staff by ship operations manager Randolph Sliester, in which he says the life of its only existing royal research ship - the James Ross Clark - will be extended for "at least another full season".

The 30-year-old ship was due to be sold, but will instead undergo an "enhanced refit" this summer.

According to the letter, it won't carry out any science in the Arctic this year, and it will only resupply BAS's Antarctic research stations in 2020/21.

Sky News understands that senior BAS managers are more optimistic that it will be possible to carry out some ship-based science, with further details expected in the coming weeks.

BAS would not comment on the cause of the delay.

But in another letter to staff, BAS director Professor Dame Jane Francis, said: "The BAS senior team recognises that this decision will affect operational and science planning for the next season."

She added that the decision to extend the working life of the existing ship was "very good news", and would "create breathing space" to complete the Sir David Attenborough to a high standard.

Any reduction in ship-based science will be a blow for researchers studying the impact of global warming on the polar oceans, particularly in the year that the UK hosts the United Nations climate summit.

The James Clark Ross was designed as a floating marine laboratory, but it is already having to double up as a resupply vessel since the retirement of BAS's logistics support ship the RSS Ernest Shackleton last year.

Sky News is currently on board the James Clark Ross, which brought around 450 tonnes of cargo and a large quantity of fuel to Rothera, BAS's main research station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Only when it is all ashore - and some waste loaded back on to the ship - will scientists be able to start their research on the effect of retreating glaciers on sea fjords.

The Sir David Attenborough was officially named at the Cammell Laird shipyard on the Wirral in September by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

It is the centrepiece of a £300m investment by the government in polar science infrastructure.