CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--Britain's polar biology program is reeling from a fire that has destroyed its main antarctic laboratory. No injuries were reported, but the fire--which broke out on 28 September--did around $3 million worth of damage and has jeopardized about one-fifth of all ongoing British antarctic research, officials say.
The cause of the fire that consumed the Bonner Laboratory at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula is still unknown, but the loss of the lab will set back investigations of climate change, Mars-like environments, and how organisms respond to extreme conditions. During peak research season, the Bonner Lab accommodates about 30 researchers. The blaze did not affect the station's living quarters, where 21 staff members remain safe.
Three principal research projects were under way at the lab, comprising almost all of Britain's terrestrial and near-shore biological research in Antarctica. Two projects looked at how sea-floor and terrestrial communities tolerate harsh conditions and high ultraviolet radiation. The third project used the Mars-like environment of some parts of the Antarctic to understand how life might have survived on Mars and how scientists can best look for signs of life on future Mars missions. The Bonner Lab also housed the continent's only year-round temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation monitoring program. Restoring this program will be a top priority in rebuilding the lab.
Scientists currently preparing for the summer research season at Rothera will now have to wait until next year or shift to smaller antarctic facilities hundreds of miles away. "We could potentially lose the best research of its type that's being done in the Antarctic," says Lloyd Peck, the British Antarctic Survey's (BAS's) lead scientist for antarctic biology. But the lab will rise from the ashes soon, he predicts. Says Chris Rapley, director of BAS: "We are committed to rebuilding the Bonner Lab."