NIWA climate change scientists honoured in Prime Minister’s top science prizes

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A team of scientists from NIWA and the University of Otago has won the top 2011 Prime Minister's Science Prize for their research into guiding the world's response to climate change.

The PM's Science Prizes were presented today in Auckland, and the top prize is worth $500,000.

NIWA's Chief Executive John Morgan said "The Prime Minister's Science Award is the most prestigious celebration of the huge contribution NIWA makes to New Zealand science and the international science community through such collaborations and world-leading science.

The nine-member team, which comes under the umbrella of the Centre for Chemical and Physical Oceanography based at the University of Otago, has carried out some of the largest experiments ever undertaken to understand the central role the ocean has played in influencing climate over the past one million years.

Their findings have helped position New Zealand as a leader in the debate about whether manipulating the oceans to remove carbon dioxide emissions from the air – a form of geo-engineering – could mitigate or solve global warming.

Team leader, and NIWA Oceanographer, Dr Philip Boyd says having ocean scientists win the Prime Minister's Science Prize is a particular milestone.

The prize-winning team carried out two ambitious experiments in the Southern Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska where they added an iron solution to large tracts of the sea, in the same way fertiliser is added to garden plants, to determine if more iron would alter concentrations of atmospheric CO2.

Dr Boyd says ice core records of past climatic conditions show periods where dust blowing off the land into the sea resulted in higher iron levels in the ocean. This fertilised the tiny plants called phytoplankton that grow in the sea and led them to take up and remove more CO2.

Scientists taking part in the SOIREE (Southern Ocean Iron Enrichment Experiment) and SERIES (Subarctic Ecosystem Response to Iron Enrichment Study) faced harsh conditions, spending weeks at sea in the stormy Southern Ocean on NIWA's deepwater research vessel Tangaroa, in waves of up to 10 metres. The fertilised swathes of ocean, equal in area to around one million swimming pools, were large enough to be seen from space by satellites.

Dr Boyd says the findings have commanded considerable international attention. "Although we proved that increasing iron supply does increase the ocean's ability to remove CO2, the increase was not as much as we initially thought, would be very costly, and is fraught with complex side effects, including the release of other more potent greenhouse gases."

The team's finding has been published in international peer-reviewed journals and is regarded globally as a seminal piece of research. The findings have fed into international conferences on geo-engineering and government decision making.

Members of the winning team are:

  • Dr Rob Murdoch - NIWA
  • Dr Philip Boyd - NIWA
  • Dr Evelyn Armstrong - NIWA
  • Dr Kim Currie - NIWA
  • Dr Cliff Law - NIWA
  • Associate Professor Russell Frew - University of Otago
  • Professor Keith Hunter - University of Otago
  • Dr Sylvia Sander - University of Otago
  • Dr Robert Strzepek - University of Otago

The team plans to use the $400,000 of prize money tagged for ongoing research to help establish a state-of-the-art culture facility at the NIWA/Otago Centre where New Zealand scientists and international collaborators can study Southern Ocean phytoplankton.

For more information see www.pmscienceprizes.org.nz

Watch this video to hear Professor Boyd talk about how the team's research is helping to guide global debate on how to mitigate the effects of a changing climate. 

Members of the winning team (from left to right): Dr Evelyn Armstrong (NIWA Research Unit), Dr Robert Strzepek (postdoctoral fellow), Dr Cliff Law (Principal Scientist, NIWA), Professor Philip Boyd (Director, Centre of Chemical and Physical Oceanography, NIWA), Dr Kim Currie (NIWA Research Unit), Associate Professor Russell Frew (Department of Chemistry, University of Otago), Prime Minister John Key, Dr Rob Murdoch (General Manager, Research, NIWA), Professor Keith Hunter (Pro-Vice Chancellor Sciences, University of Otago), and Dr Sylvia Sander (Department of Chemistry, University of Otago).
Dr Philip Boyd with Prime Minister John Key
Research subject: Oceans