7 April, 2020 BAS News stories

CAMBRIDGE: British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has announced exceptional plans to repatriate scientists, support teams and construction workers as they complete their Antarctic summer field season work.


Major disruption to international travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the virus, has meant that BAS has had to find safe and secure solutions to bring its people home safely to the UK.


A passenger ship moored off the Falkland Islands and operated by Noble Caledonia, will provide temporary, quarantined accommodation for scientists and support staff while they wait to return home.  The ship will bring back to the UK around 90 science, support staff and a number of construction workers who have been building a new wharf for the RRS Sir David Attenborough.


As the summer field season ends, our Antarctic teams prepare themselves to return home to an extraordinary situation.  BAS Headquarters in Cambridge is closed and everyone is working from home.  Families and friends are complying with the UK Government’s requirement to stay-at- home and maintain social distancing.


BAS Director Professor Dame Jane Francis said


“In a normal year, around 100 of our people leave Antarctica at the end of the summer field season.  They come home by ship or aircraft, stopping at the Falkland Islands to catch a MoD flight to Brize Norton, or transfer to South America for a commercial flight to UK.  However, in the last few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything and created a huge challenge for our logistics and operations experts.  I am very pleased that we can get our people home during the next few weeks and I am grateful to Noble Caledonia for making their ship available to us.


In spite of all of this, our Antarctic field season has been very successful.  Our deep-field and shipborne science programmes have generated new data that will help us understand the impacts of climate change and future sea-level rise.  Our new wharf is complete thanks to the efforts of our construction partner BAM and our programme management team.  Now, I wish all of our staff, research colleagues and contractors a safe journey home; I thank them – and their families – for their patience and cooperation during a very challenging repatriation operation.”


Noble Caledonia Head of Fleet Operations Mike Deegan said:


“We are delighted to be able to assist British Antarctic Survey with the repatriation of their staff members who have been involved with vital scientific and research work down south. We shall do everything in our power to return their staff safely, as swiftly as possible and in a quarantined environment to their families and loved ones.”


The RRS James Clark Ross (JCR) is currently at Rothera Research Station unloading supplies for the Antarctic winter.


Once operations are complete Rothera summer team members will board the ship joining personnel who have been working at Signy, Bird Island and King Edward Point research stations who are already aboard.  The ship will transport people to the Falkland Islands to rendezvous with the charter ship and return to Rothera to bring any remaining summer staff north.


South American routes are unavailable. MoD flights, suspended when Cape Verde officials stopped access for refuelling, have resumed following actions by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth and MoD


Halley and Signy Research Stations are closed for the Antarctic winter


Bird Island station is now ‘wintering’ with four members of staff on station


Rothera Research Station will operate during winter from 27 April when the Twin Otter aircraft and RRS James Clark Ross depart.  Then 28 members of staff will winter at the research station


The chartered ship is due to depart Falkland Islands on 3 May 2020. The voyage to UK takes about 20 days


Underwater mountain mapped in the South Atlantic


© Simon Morley (BAS) on the RRS James Clark Ross



An underwater mountain double the height of the UK’s Ben Nevis has been added to a global map of the seafloor during a research cruise to investigate the marine environment around some of the offshore seamounts that are found in Tristan da Cunha territorial waters. The Government of Tristan da Cunha highlighted this information as a priority for the Island as they designate their marine protection strategy and give the best possible protection to their oceans.


Today is the two-year anniversary of the mapping of the underwater mountain during the marine expedition near the UK overseas territories of St Helena and Tristan da Cunha.


At over 2,500 metres high, the underwater structure is twice the height of the UK’s tallest mountain. It was mapped by a team of scientists from Cefas, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the UK Hydrographic Office on the BAS research vessel RRS James Clark Ross on a month-long research expedition to the remote islands.


Blue Belt Programme scientist Tammy Stamford from Cefas said:


“As a general rule, the vast majority of the deep ocean floor is very poorly mapped and Tristan da Cunha and St Helena are no exception. In most areas, the resolution of the best available maps is something in the order of about 1km2.


This means that the map can miss a great deal of information . It can even miss entire mountains if they’re small enough.”


Even from the best available maps, scientists knew little about the underwater mountain before arriving to the area. They saw a massive 400x increase in horizontal resolution after taking their measurements. The team used a scientific technique called ‘swath bathymetry’ to build a picture of the underwater mountain, known as a seamount.


BAS marine ecologist Simon Morley explains:


“Local fishermen from St Helena led the research ship to the approximate location of the seamount.


We then bounced sound pulses off the seabed from the ship. By measuring the time for the sound pulses to return, we were able to build an accurate picture of the structure.”


The seamount was added to the global map of the seafloor by the International Hydrographic Organisation. The seamount received its name from the residents of St Helena after a competition to find a name. The winning entry “Charlie Boar” was the nickname of Mr Charles Henry – a local fishermen, sailor and merchant seaman who passed away in 2018.


St Helena, Tristan da Cunha & Ascension Island Governor Philip Rushbrook said:


“The discovery of this seamount was a very special achievement and what better way could there be but to name it after a well-known seafarer from St Helena. His family and all on this Island are delighted by this international recognition.”


The newly mapped seamount wasn’t the only finding from the month-long marine research expedition. Seamounts interrupt deep water currents and force nutrient-rich waters near the surface. As a result, seafloor ecosystems around seamounts and remote islands are often unique and biodiverse.


Blue Belt Programme’s James Bell says:


“We collected biological specimens using scientific nets and studied biodiversity on the seabed using a camera system. We didn’t take samples from the Charlie Boar Seamount because it was too deep for most of our equipment to reach.”


Scientists are using data from the marine expedition to support Blue Belt Programme and BAS work in the region. Their research will help provide long term protection to the biodiverse marine environments of the UK Overseas Territory.


About the Blue Belt Programme


The Blue Belt Programme supports the UK government’s commitment to enhance marine protection for over four million square kilometres of marine environment across the UK Overseas Territories.

The programme is an innovative partnership the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) working with, and in support of, the UK Overseas Territories.


For more information:

Follow @UKGovBlueBelt on twitter, Visit the Blue Belt Programme webpage, Sign up to the Blue Belt Programme newsletter.

Blog authors: Rachel Healey (Cefas), James Bell (Cefas), Tammy Stamford (Cefas), Martin Collins (BAS) and Simon Morley (BAS).


9 April, 2020