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Royal Navy supports science mission into human impact on Antarctica

5 December 2023
The Royal Navy will help scientists study the impact of tourism and climate change on the Antarctic as icebreaker HMS Protector begins her annual polar mission.

Scientists from the University of Portsmouth will work with HMS Protector until the end of January as the survey and research ship deploys with a double-pronged mission dedicated to better understanding the frozen continent and its waters.

The Antarctic received a record number of tourists during the 2022-23 season – 105,331 visitors with 50 ships a day operating around the frozen continent at the peak, with both figures only expected to rise.

Much of the work of the Royal Navy over the past few decades has been to facilitate that trade by surveying Antarctic waters using the latest tech allowing seafaring charts to be updated to the highest standards.

But scientists are concerned the increased tourist activity could be having an effect on the region’s delicate ecological balance.

Professor Fay Couceiro has joined Plymouth-based Protector to study the impact of cruise ships on marine pollution on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

She’ll collect samples of water and sea bed sediment from bays visited by cruise vessels, comparing them with samples from sites undisturbed by tourism.

“There has been a steady increase in cruise ship tourism and certain bays on the Antarctic Peninsula are now regularly visited,” she said.

“We need to understand more about how this trend is affecting this beautiful but fragile ecosystem.”

In particular, she’s looking for concentrations of heavy metals, microplastics and antimicrobial resistance genes, while fellow scientist Dr Clare Boston will carry out bathymetric surveys of the sea floor using HMS Protector’s multibeam sonars in bays not previously documented to map glacial landforms.

Dr Boston is also hoping to sample some glacially-deposited rocks on land for surface exposure dating – a technique which can be used to date when the rock was deposited, which will give an indication of when the land was last covered by glacier ice.

“The effects of climate change are a major concern in the region,” Dr Boston explains.

“The Antarctic Peninsula has witnessed some of the most rapid warming on earth in the past 70 years. Better understanding of both recent glacier change and longer-term dynamics of ice sheet recession is important for improving predictions of how glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula will respond to future climate change.”

Their research, alongside the work of the ship, collecting data for the UK Hydrographic Office and the British Antarctic Survey, demonstrate the Royal Navy’s longstanding involvement in the region, which started with Captain Cook in the 18th Century.

Captain Milly Ingham

HMS Protector, currently heading for the Falklands which serves as the hub for her mission in the polar region, is equipped with everything needed to assist the scientists with their research projects.

The ship has a full sonar suite as well as a small survey boat equipped with a multi-beam echo sounding system that can survey the sea floor at shallow depths, close to calving glacier margins. High tech-equipment is used to collect data quickly and accurately in extreme conditions.

“We are delighted to be able to welcome the Portsmouth University scientists onboard to assist with their research into climate change and the effect of tourism on the fragile ecosystems in Antarctica,” said Captain Milly Ingham, the ice ship’s commanding officer.

“Their research, alongside the work of the ship, collecting data for the UK Hydrographic Office and the British Antarctic Survey, demonstrate the Royal Navy’s longstanding involvement in the region, which started with Captain Cook in the 18th Century.”

As well as supporting the University of Portsmouth team, Protector will continue her work updating charts, delivering supplies for BAS teams and conducting general scientific observations.

Protector’s sailors will also tackle the impact of climate change when they return to Metchnikoff Point for the second time in a decade.

The headland, on the northwestern tip of Brabant Island, was the site of a British Joint Services Expedition back in the mid-80s.

They were forced to abandon the site in a hurry due to an expedition member suffering a badly broken leg and – as was custom at the time – buried equipment and waste under snow, convinced it would always stay covered.

Global warming proved otherwise. Protector’s crew cleaned up much of the site in 2017, but not all of it.

Recent reports suggest that some of the waste may now be visible and on the surface, the ship will return at the end of summer to see what can be done to clear up Metchnikoff Point for good.

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