Undated handout photo issued by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) of RRS Sir David Attenborough during ice trials during its maiden voyage to Antarctica.

RRS Sir David Attenborough completes ‘ice trials’ in Antarctica

Image credit: Jamie Anderson/BAS/PA

The RRS Sir David Attenborough has completed ‘ice trials’ during its maiden voyage to Antarctica, a key milestone in the vessel’s commissioning.

The trials saw the polar research ship tested through the ice at every power level to measure its performance against expectations. The vessel’s captain, Ralph Stevens, said that team was “really pleased” with its performance.

Stevens and his team also performed a range of manoeuvres, including reversing, turning, and impact tests going into the ice at different speeds, in icy areas of the sea around the Antarctic Peninsula and Bellinghausen Sea.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which operates the RRS Sir David Attenborough, said  satellite data was used to locate suitable areas of ice for the trials.

According to the team, most manoeuvres were in fast ice, which is attached to the coast and not moving, allowing them to work out accurately the amount of energy needed to break the ice, while they also conducted tests in open and closed pack ice.

“Overall, we’re really pleased with the ship’s performance in ice trials – in some trials it actually performed better than we expected,” said Stevens. “The trials highlighted some issues with the ship which need to be addressed but we expected this – the SDA is a bespoke ship with a complex design, and the purpose of trials is to find the things that don’t work so well.”

He added that the one thing that surprised him and his team the most was how comfortable the ship was while breaking through the sea ice. “The bow breaks the ice completely differently to our previous vessels and is much quieter than expected.”

RRS Sir David Attenborough during ice trials during its maiden voyage to Antarctica

Image credit: Jamie Anderson/BAS/PA

Following the trials, the ship encountered unprecedented sea ice conditions, of second-year ice covered in a thick 5ft (1.5m) layer of snow, which hampered efforts to reach Stange Sound to deliver cargo to support the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.

The ship is a Polar Ice Class 5 ship, which means it can break through ice 1m thick at a speed of three knots, or 3.5mph (5.6km/h), using a 15,000-tonne weight to break through.

BAS’s John Harper, captain of the ship during the ice trials, said it broke through more than 15km of second-year fast ice, which was over 2m thick. According to Harper, this is well beyond the expected ability of a ship of that polar class.

“While it was frustrating, we couldn’t reach our drop-off point, encountering these conditions has been an incredible learning experience and has given us the opportunity to push the ship to its limits and really see what it can do,” he said.

RRS Sir David Attenborough docked

Image credit: Jamie Anderson/BAS/PA

Professor Dame Jane Francis, director of BAS, said the tests were “another significant milestone” for the ship and that she is delighted to see it performing well. “Following COP26 in Glasgow last year, the world is more aware than ever of the urgent need to understand our changing world, and the RRS Sir David Attenborough has a vital role to play in that,” she added.

The research ship will provide scientists with state-of-the-art facilities to study the oceans, seafloor, ice, and atmosphere.

It set sail on its maiden voyage in November and will return to the UK in June for several weeks in refit to rectify issues identified in the ice trials and finish commissioning science equipment and carry out science trials at sea.

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RRS Sir David Attenborough during ice trials in Antartica

Image credit: Jamie Anderson/BAS/PA


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