Navy’s key role highlighted on Environment Day

Today marks World Environment Day – when the United Nations calls on the citizens of the earth to focus on protecting our environment.

The men and women of the Royal Navy play a daily role in safeguarding and monitoring the natural world around us, from localised initiatives such as beach cleans near RN bases to monitoring the build-up of plastics on Pacific islands.

And there are Royal Navy vessels dedicated to keeping a close eye on the environment such as the three fishery protection ships of the Coastal Forces Squadron, which guarantee sustainable fishing stocks in home waters and help bring rogue trawlermen to justice.

But no ship is at the forefront of environmental research and scientific study than the Navy’s sole Antarctic patrol ship, HMS Protector.

Over the past 30 years the amount of ice that has come off the glacier has nearly doubled, highlighting the need for the five-year study to fully understand the glacier.

The icebreaker is currently undergoing her five-yearly refit on Teesside, before resuming her mission to the frozen continent this autumn – in time for the onset of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

On her last season in the ice – 2018-19 – the Devonport-based ship supported the largest international scientific project currently underway in Antarctica.

British and American scientists are leading a team of experts from around the world studying the enormous (192,000 square kilometres, or roughly the size of Florida) Thwaites Glacier.

Over the past 30 years the amount of ice that has come off the glacier has nearly doubled, highlighting the need for the five-year study to fully understand the glacier.

A special ‘berth’ alongside the ice was created by the RRS Ernest Shackleton, the British Antarctic Survey’s icebreaker, to allow Protector to come alongside at one of the most remote places ever visited by a Royal Navy ship.

She helped deliver many of the supplies required to help establish the scientific mission, offloading 170 cubic tonnes of fuel (enough for more than 3,000 family cars) for the project’s generators, transports and snowmobiles, and used her 60-tonne crane to lift numerous pallets of general stores from the hold to the ice.

There was time for a spot of ‘glacier rugby’ on the ice before the ship left the scientists to conduct their research.

Those experts have just completed their second season of research, including sending a unique robot submersible under the glacier to take pictures of the underside of Thwaites and investigate how warmer ocean water is eating away at the mass of ice.

Other underwater vehicles have provided unprecedented sonar imagery of the Antarctic sea bed and given scientists a much greater understanding of how the last Ice Age ended.

When not involved in such groundbreaking work, Protector’s more regular duties are to chart the ocean around Antarctic to modern standards using her state-of-the-art sonar systems, collect data on the properties of these icy waters, deliver supplies to British Antarctic Survey research stations and support the UK’s leading role in the Antarctic Treaty System.