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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 10:49 GMT
UK to rebuild Antarctic lab
Lab, BBC
The wreckage of the Bonner Lab
From Christine McGourty, science correspondent, in Antarctica

The British Antarctic Survey (Bas) is to build a new 3m laboratory on the White Continent after its main research facility was destroyed by a fire in September.

We've managed to keep going, by moving the bulk of the chemical and biological analysis back to the UK

Brian Newham
Rothera base commander
Independent investigators say the blaze was caused by an electrical fault in the roof of the laboratory.

All that remains now of the Bonner Laboratory here at Rothera is a pile of twisted metal buried in snow. It used to house an aquarium, a diving facility and space for up to 25 scientists to study the environment and the biology of Antarctica.

It was burnt to the ground one night in September. No-one was hurt, but the building and years of scientific research were destroyed in just a few hours.

High temperatures

The dry atmosphere and winds of 100 km/h (60 mph) fuelled the fire.

Bonner, Bas
The lab was opened in January 1997 and was the centre for biological research by Bas
Attempts to fight it with a snow-blowing machine failed. And scientists had to watch from a distance as their work and personal belongings in the one-storey building went up in flames.

The temperature inside reached over 850 degrees; melted laboratory equipment was found in the remains.

Brian Newham, the base commander at Rothera, said it was a consolation to know that the fire systems at the base did work.

Alarms went off before the fire took hold and the fire breaks between different sections of the laboratory delayed its spread.

New facility

But it has been a serious blow to the long-term environmental monitoring based at Rothera. The British Antarctic Survey - which has two other bases at Halley and Signy - has an international reputation for its research, particularly into climate change.

Bonner, Bas
The fire in the early stages
"Some projects had to be cancelled completely, though the vast majority we've managed to keep going, by moving the bulk of the chemical and biological analysis back to the UK," said Mr Newham.

The UK Government has agreed to provide more than 2m towards rebuilding the laboratory and this will get underway next year.

But the clean-up has been delayed by bad weather. When the fire investigators visited in November the laboratory was under more than two metres (six feet) of snow.

Now, a five-person clean-up team is due to arrive in January. One of the first jobs will be to make repairs to the foundations. A temporary diving facility will be installed so marine research can begin to get underway again.

'Pretty appalling'

Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, said the new laboratory should be completed by November 2003.

He said it was encouraging that the investigation had found what appeared to be the cause of the fire.

"Fires can happen anywhere," he said. "And when we heard the building was almost completely destroyed we thought it might be impossible to find out the cause.

They did everything they could and more but without putting themselves in any danger

Professor Chris Rapley, British Antarctic Survey
"But this will help us make sure it never happens again. We've also checked all the other buildings to make sure none of them suffer from the same electrical fault."

He said the impact of the fire on the science programme was "pretty appalling", but that the marine biology programme, which had been worst hit, accounted for only 15 - 20% of overall research.

He added that the investigation appeared to show that the team at Rothera had handled the disaster well.

"They did everything they could and more but without putting themselves in any danger, which they are strictly instructed not to do," said Professor Rapley.

Graphic, BBC
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