Construction starts on Antarctic wharf which will house RRS Attenborough vessel

Work is underway on a new 74-metre long wharf at the Rothera Research Station in the Antarctic which forms a significant part of the government’s largest investment in polar science since the 1980s.

Operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the wharf will be home to the £200m RRS Sir David Attenborough and provide safe berthing for the 129-metre long Polar Research Vessel.

The commissioning of the RRS Sir David Attenborough is part of a major polar infrastructure investment programme designed to keep Britain at the forefront of world-leading research in Antarctica and the Arctic.

A 50-strong team from BAM, is spending two Antarctic summers dismantling the old 60m wharf and building the new 74m one. Engineering and design consultancy Ramboll will be supporting BAM by advising on construction with the project due to be completed in April 2020.

The latest milestone is a significant step forward in the £100m upgrade of the Rothera research station and follows two years of meticulous planning. Late in 2018, a cargo ship, DS Wisconsin, was loaded with 4,500 tonnes of equipment and materials and shipped 11,000km from the UK to the Antarctic. 

The facts and figures of RRS Attenborough:

  • Length: 129m
  • Scientific cargo volume of approximately 900m³
  • Endurance – up to 60 days 
  • Range 19,000nm at 13 knots (24 km/h) cruising speed; more than enough for a return trip from England to Rothera Research Station, or to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice
  • Ice breaking capability – up to 1m thick at 3 knots (5.6 km/h)
  • Bow and stern thrusters for excellent dynamic positioning in challenging conditions
  • Approximately 30 crew members
  • Accommodation for up to 60 scientists and support staff

An artist's impression of how BAM workers will be working to "five-storeys depth".

Commenting, BAS engineer and project manager David Seaton said: “Construction work in Antarctica is like nothing else, and it has taken a vast amount of planning, practising and preparation to get us this far. The next few weeks will be critical to the success of the project and we hope to make good progress whilst we have long hours of daylight and relatively favourable weather conditions, knowing that in a few months when winter approaches, things are likely to get a lot more difficult.”

The ship took 11 days and nights of round the clock work to unload, marking the beginning of this major construction operation in the Antarctic. The Rothera research station, which opened in 1975, is the largest British Antarctic facility.

Deconstruction of the old wharf is also underway. Two 35 tonne excavators, operated by BAM, broke through the surface of the old ‘Biscoe’ wharf in mid-January and two 90 tonne long reach machines are in place for the deep excavation and dismantling works.

Jenny Symons, a senior engineer for Ramboll returned from Rothera this week, having spent 10 weeks supporting BAS and BAM during the construction. She said: “I have really loved being in Rothera, it’s a remarkable place. The team spirit is great, and it’s been a pleasure to be part of that and supporting BAS in the construction of the wharf.” 

Funnily enough, if the public had their way then the 129m-long vessel heading to Rothera would not have been called RRS Attenborough. In an online poll, the public had selected "Boaty McBoatface" as the winning name before ministers intervened.

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