Jul 2018

The RRS Sir David Attenborough : A New Polar Ship for Britain

“[In recent decades] Antarctica has been transformed from the remote to the absolute immediate.” These were the words of Sir David Attenborough as he summed up the need for Britain to remain at the leading-edge of polar science, particularly in Antarctica, but increasingly also in the Arctic. As Sir David added: “[Britain] is responsible for bringing Antarctica to the world’s attention…The UK and the British Antarctic Survey have been finding things out in Antarctica on behalf of the world and that should be a tremendous source of pride in this country.”  

The Government’s decision to build a new polar research ship was announced in April 2014. The £200 million contract (the UK Government’s largest investment in polar science since the 1980s, and part of a 10-year investment in polar infrastructure) was awarded to Cammell Laird Shiprepairers & Shipbuilders Ltd in Birkenhead on Merseyside, after it beat off competition from firms in Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Norway.

Cammell Laird was founded in 1828 by two Scottish entrepreneurs, William Laird and his son John. Over the years, the firm has built more than 1,350 ships and played a key role in both World Wars. Famous ships built at the Cammell Laird shipyard include the Robert F Stockton (the first screw steamer to cross the Atlantic), the Dover (the first iron ship owned by the British Government), the Ma Robert (possibly the first ever steel ship), HMS Ark Royal (Britain’s first aircraft carrier) and the HMS Devonshire (Britain’s first guided missile destroyer). With the RRS Sir David Attenborough set to become one of the most advanced scientific research ships in the world, Cammell Laird is continuing to build its reputation for delivering innovative and complex shipbuilding projects.  

Why Britain needs a new polar research ship

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is the operator of Britain’s national polar logistics. That includes the two special ice-strengthened ships that UK polar scientists currently rely on: the RRS James Clark Ross (which is Government-owned) and the RRS Ernest Shackleton (which is leased). Both ships are more than 20 years old.

RRS Ernest Shackleton (ES)
RRS James Clark Ross (JCR)

The two ships perform different roles. The JCR has been used primarily as a science support ship, mainly for biological, oceanographic and geophysical cruises. The ES, meanwhile, has generally been used as a logistics vessel to transport cargo, fuel and passengers to and from BAS’ research stations in Antarctica.  

Ship-based science has been tremendously important for Britain in Antarctica because of the need to better understand how the waters that surround the continent influence the world’s oceans. The Antarctica Circumpolar Current, which is the biggest and most powerful on Earth, is a massive conveyor of heat through the oceans. Around Antarctica, heat from mainly human-driven activity that is being trapped in the atmosphere is being drawn down deep into the ocean. If heat was not trapped in the ocean, the world would be +36°C warmer than it is today. Plankton in the Southern Ocean also creates a sink for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (around 50% of all CO2 uptake around the world occurs in the Southern Ocean).

Periodically, warm water from the Southern Ocean heads under Antarctica’s major ice shelves, where it eats away at the ice from below. This can cause the destabilisation of the ice shelves, which are vital buttresses against ice stored on land in glaciers and ice sheets sliding into the sea more quickly (driving global sea level rise).  

Yet Antarctica’s waters are still relatively understudied, making up the world’s biggest ‘data desert’. Further ship-based science is needed to understand just how the processes outlined above work, and in particular, the risks posed to the stability of the ice shelves, as well as other consequences relating, for example, to the Southern Ocean’s rich food chain. ORCHESTRA1 is just one example of the kind of work that is currently underway, supported by the JCR. A brand new joint Natural Environment Research Council/National Science Foundation project on the Thwaites Glacier2, to better understand the risk of the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsing, also requires ship-based science support.  

However, with both the JCR and the ES starting to show their age, BAS, NERC and the UK Government agreed that a greener, more efficient and more advanced polar research ship was ultimately needed for the years and decades ahead.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough

The RRS Sir David Attenborough will be one of the world’s most advanced scientific research ships. It is five times bigger than the two ships that BAS currently operates. With the JCR set to be sold, and the ES returned to its owners, the Attenborough will perform science support and logistics roles. Cammell Laird describe it as a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of ships, capable of science research, supply, and passenger transfer. The ship has a long range, can transport a lot of cargo and also has the potential to support up to two helicopters, as well as a fleet of drones. It will carry approximately 30 crew and up to 60 scientists and support staff.

RRS Sir David Attenborough – artist’s impression.

The Attenborough’s cutting-edge capabilities will enable scientists to continue their existing research activities while also enabling them to reach new places (a role enhanced by her remotely operated and robotic technologies, as well as her capabilities to spend up to 60 days at sea unsupported and break ice up to 1m thick). These tools and capabilities will be critical for furthering understanding of the Southern Ocean in particular, many areas of which remain largely unstudied. The Attenborough will also provide support to the UK’s scientific research stations on Antarctica and has acted as a catalyst for Britain to invest in modernising its polar infrastructure, especially at Rothera (the backbone of much of the international scientific activity that happens in Antarctica) where a new wharf is being built. During the Antarctic winter, the Attenborough will be available to deploy to the Arctic, in support of the UK’s growing Arctic science interests.    

British shipbuilding is back

The RRS Sir David Attenborough will be of immense importance for maintaining the UK’s world-class reputation for polar science, further expanding the UK’s polar science capabilities, and signalling to the rest of the world that the UK is totally committed to being at the forefront of international efforts to understand how the polar regions affect and influence the rest of the world.

However, the Attenborough is also a success story for the entire UK Maritime Sector as she is arguably the most significant commercial ship to be constructed in the UK for several decades. She is being built by Cammell Laird, but the ice-class design came from their partner of choice, Rolls-Royce, another famous British-based company. The modular ship design meant that while most of her hull is being built in Birkenhead, the stern section (which is the size of 71 London double decker buses) was built at A&P Tyne’s Hebburn shipyard. This co-ordinated effort has shown that firms that are normally fierce competitors can work together (a similar business model was used for the building of the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers) to rebuild the UK’s commercial ship-building industry and provide thousands of highly-skilled jobs and apprenticeships.

The stern section built by A&P arrives at Cammell Laird

The maritime services (insurance, classification, etc.) provided by firms in the City of London have also been essential, especially for ensuring that the Attenborough meets the demanding requirements of the International Maritime Organisation’s ‘Polar Code’, which recently came into force. The Polar Code sets tough new standards for operating in polar waters as operations there put additional demands on ships and crews. The UK Maritime Sector is now well-placed to use the expertise it has developed to advise on and lead the rest of the world in the implementation of this vital regulation for the protection of the polar regions and those that operate or live there. This has already been recognised by the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Marine Environment Working Group which chose to establish its Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum in London in 2017.3

The investment that the Attenborough has brought about will therefore serve the entire UK Maritime Sector for years to come. Cammell Laird has regenerated a polar ship-building capability not seen in the UK since the late 1980s and has already identified a number of future opportunities for growing this capability still further, owing to growing worldwide demand for ships capable of operating in polar waters. Demand for associated skills, expertise and support services provided by other UK-based firms also stand to grow as a result and so the project has upheld the UK Government’s Industrial, Northern Powerhouse and National Shipbuilding strategies.  

Ultimately, the Attenborough has shown that the UK Maritime Sector can build cutting-edge, world-leading ships at a time when many people believe that Britain has lost that capability.  


The RRS Sir David Attenborough is set to give a tremendous boost to the UK Polar Science community, as well as the UK Maritime Sector (the ship is also a tremendous source of pride for all those who have been involved in the project). For the Government, the Attenborough provides a capability that will further the UK’s understanding of some of the world’s most important challenges, especially climate change. The work that the Attenborough will do in Antarctica and the Arctic will help provide a detailed understanding of the polar regions and their relevance to the UK and the rest of the world. This will be used to help inform how the Government shapes Britain’s way of life, as well as influence the decisions taken by other nations. In doing so, the Attenborough will reaffirm the UK’s position at the heart of the Antarctica Treaty System and the international Arctic science community, both of which are so critical for communicating the UK’s values and interests in Antarctica and the Arctic around the world.  

Looking ahead, the Attenborough may well remain in service for 30-40 years. That raises a set of intriguing questions, such as what will Antarctica and the Arctic look like around the middle of the century? What will be the requirements of the Attenborough’s successor? What technologies will be available to shipbuilders and scientists? Where will it be built? And will the peace and cooperation have continued among nations with polar interests or will the UK’s next polar ship need to be armed? In thinking about how we might answer these questions, one thing becomes clear. The Attenborough is about much more than advancing UK Polar Science – she is likely to prove critical to shaping the future of the polar regions.

This paper was prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge (Director, APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat), and endorsed by James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions).

Photographs from the British Antarctic Survey and Cammell Laird.  

Please send any comments, queries, or suggestions to info@appgpolarregions.uk.

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.