The world’s most famous naturalist speaks to Glint Perspectives about his pride in the new polar research ship bearing his name and tells us who he takes his inspiration from
“This ship with my name is a source of embarrassment,” Sir David Attenborough says of the polar research ship that the public voted should be his namesake. “But, of course, what a generous compliment. I couldn’t be more proud of what this country is doing in the international space [of the Antarctic],” he continues.
The RRS Sir David Attenborough is due to be launched by shipbuilders Cammell Laird into the Mersey on July 14th. The ship is then scheduled for polar sea trials in spring next year and is set to join the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) mission around the South Pole towards the end of 2019.
Ahead of his short address to the scientists, engineers and policy makers gathered at Parliament to hear how the RRS Sir David Attenborough is about to transform BAS research capabilities around the South Pole, Attenborough details why the region is of such importance. Put simply all of the world’s weather is affected by it, he says, as the ocean’s currents are dictated by the warming, cooling and rotating of water around the continent.
As well as a need to understand this phenomenon, and how humanity might be influencing it by provoking glacial melts, the region is also crucial for encouraging international cooperation over climate change. “It has done [that] already. There was, of course, a very obvious slipping away by President Trump but I was at the last Paris talks and it was a wonderful atmosphere there. All kinds of people, all kinds of nationalities, everybody got together, everybody saw the point and everybody saw they had to do something about it and it was very inspiring and exciting.”
Talking about his own inspirations in exploration Attenborough references a number of notable nautical pioneers. “There’s Challenger, a great expedition. The explorations of the deep by [William] Beebe in the Bathysphere – there are plenty of important scientific expeditions.” Like his heroes, the legendary broadcaster and naturalist has joined many expeditions in his career, visiting the continent of Antarctica multiple times in order to bring its wonders into the living rooms of millions. Will he go back? “Perhaps not actually – I think I’ll be ok but they don’t like taking 90-year-olds…”
The RRS Sir David Attenborough hopes to facilitate a great many more scientific expeditions. The ship is four times the size of the BAS’s current biggest vessel the James Clark Ross, it will carry a company of 90: 30 crew and 60 scientists, have a range of 19,000 nautical miles, be home to two helicopters and have a moon pool – an open water shaft inside the ship giving scientists direct access to the Southern Ocean where it will be able to break ice a metre thick (it will also have an ROV named Boaty McBoatface). “When she actually slips down the slipway she’ll probably be the most complex ship in the world,” says Professor Ian Boyd, chief science adviser at DEFRA and former science programme director at BAS.
The capabilities offered by such complexity will be used to answer the most pressing of scientific questions. Currently the southern ocean absorbs 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide – if it were not able to absorb this heating gas the world’s temperatures would rise by an estimated 36°C. One of the RRS Sir David Attenborough’s first tasks will be to assist a joint-international scientific operation to better understand the implication of warming waters and currents on the Thwaites Glacier. The glacier is believed to be acting as a bulwark to the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet which, if melted, would trigger a rise of sea-levels by 5-6 meters, despite making up less than a third of the Antarctic continent.
Joined up operations such as the Thwaites Glacier Research Project are typical of the logistics of scientific programmes south of the Antarctic circle. The RRS David Attenborough will be supporting work being carried out at five BAS bases, including Rothera, whose modest airstrip facilitates the German, Chinese, American, Japanese, Indian and Russian Antarctic missions. That integration is enshrined by the Antarctic Treaty System which puts scientific research for the good of humanity ahead of political gain.
Perhaps the world’s best known conservationist, Attenborough, believes that legacy can be further facilitated by BAS and their new ship. Another conservationist, whom mentored Attenborough was Sir Peter Scott, whose father was Robert Falcon Scott of the ill-fated Scott expedition.
“Scott went to the Antarctic because it was emptiness, it was unknown,” says Attenborough. “What you’ve just heard is, of course, the opposite of that. The Antarctic becomes transformed from the remote, to the absolute immediate. What is happening there now, effects not just this country but the entire world. It is a source of great, unalloyed, pride to show what this interest, concern and understanding of information can do in the international field. Did you know the British Antarctic Survey is responsible for finding out for the whole world, the question of the ozone layer? This country can be very proud – it is a world leader in certain standards. I could not be more proud of what BAS is doing for this country and for the world.”
Image top: Sir David Attenborough with a model of the RRS Sir David Attenborough