It’s the big white elephant in climate change’s room, holding in its icy stores the equivalent of 60m of global sea level rise.
Solving the puzzle of how Antarctica is responding to a warming world couldn’t be more critical to the future of the planet – and it’s no exaggeration to say our understanding would be much cloudier, if not for a small team of Kiwis.
That team – made up of geologists, glaciologists, climate and social scientists from Victoria University, Niwa and GNS Science – have now been acknowledged for their enormously important work, with the Prime Minister’s Science Prize.
The scientists have already found that Antarctic melt, driven by climate change, could contribute to global sea level rise of 1.4 metres by the year 2100 – a higher threshold than the metre predicted in the most recent United Nations stocktake.
In some parts of New Zealand, where there was land subsidence, that rise could be high as 2m.
The team’s discovery began with work 15 years ago by New Zealand scientists who drilled and analysed ice and sediment cores in Antarctica’s Ross Sea sector.
Geological archives gathered on how ice had advanced and retreated over 20 million years have now been integrated with the latest ice sheet and climate models to show the impact of Antarctic melting under a warming climate.
They also found that Antarctica’s ice sheet has a stability threshold of 2C of global warming, and that there is still a pathway to mitigate the impact of sea level rise around the world.
Nominator Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, said the team has put New Zealand at the forefront of global environmental research.
“Their research has made truly outstanding contributions to this major topic of concern,” she said.
“Their work has an impact on a global scale. It is directly relevant to IPCC policy recommendations and to the global attempt to limit CO2 emissions, particularly to the Paris target to stabilise global warming below 2C.”
The team’s leader, renowned glaciologist Professor Tim Naish, said the work had involved annual expeditions by scientists who drill deep cores of sediment and ice below the floating icy fringes of Antarctica to understand how ice sheets responded during past times of warm climate.
Though working in difficult, sub-zero conditions for weeks and months is challenging, Naish said scientists had bigger concerns.
“The effects of global warming are incredibly urgent. The science tells us we have got to act if we are going to prevent serious things happening to Earth’s climate system and polar ice sheets,” he said.
“Given what [warming] we have got locked in already, we are going to see more thinning of the ice shelves and more hot-spots retreating – especially in the Antarctic peninsula.
“Ultimately, we are going to see at least half a metre of global sea level rise by 2100 – that can’t be avoided, even if we meet the Paris Agreement target.
“That means there are 700 million people who live close to the coast who will be impacted by high tide flooding. Covid-19 might be killing a lot of people, but climate change still remains our biggest existential threat.”
With the new evidence, scientists are moving their focus to communicating with decision-makers on how to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
“There is still time to avoid major meltdown of Antarctica by controlling our emissions, in line with the Paris climate agreement.”
Naish said winning the prestigious prize was a “huge honour” for the team.
“All of us find it so rewarding that we can contribute to this important research area, and make a difference for New Zealand and on the world stage,” he said.
“Our team has diverse expertise and we’ve come at this problem from many different angles from fundamental discoveries to applied research.
“We have international colleagues who look at us and say, ‘How did you guys in such a small country put together such a functional, world-class team?'”
Among some of the team’s best-known scientists are glaciologist Associate Professor Nick Golledge, ice core expert Associate Professor Nancy Bertler, geologists Dr Richard Levy and Associate Professor Rob McKay, sea level rise expert Dr Rob Bell, climate scientist Professor James Renwick, coastal hazard expert Dr Judy Lawrence, and academic, writer and science historian Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley.
Part of their shared $500,000 prize will support a two-year postdoctoral research fellow to work with the NZ SeaRise Programme on Antarctic ice sheet dynamics and implications for sea level rise in New Zealand.
Dr Miro Erkintalo
The world-leading University of Auckland physicist received the Prime Minister’s 2019 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize for his pioneering contributions towards the development of new laser technologies.
Erkintalo, based out of the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum
Technologies, researches and develops new kinds of laser devices that could enable many new and improved applications, including faster and cheaper internet.
He has introduced a theoretical model for the description of a new technology that can convert a single laser beam into hundreds or thousands of beams of different colours, known as a microresonator frequency comb.
His nominator, Professor Roberto Morandotti, of Montreal’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, said “micro-combs” are projected to have a big role in many future technologies and “therefore quite likely to have a wide societal impact as well.”
These combs are capable of replacing hundreds of lasers used in existing telecommunications systems with just one, thus improving the systems’ performance and energy-efficiency.
“The capacity of light to carry information through optical fibres is much, much larger than the alternatives but even so, there is a constant demand for more and more bandwidth,” Erkintalo said.
Besides telecommunications, the research has potential applications in technologies as diverse as self-driving cars and the detection of planets outside our solar system.
“What I love about my work is that while it involves fundamental physics, we are also pushing at the boundaries of what lasers can do and how they might play a vital role in technologies of the future.”
Professor Rangi Matamua
The Tūhoe astronomer, who has raised awareness about the significance of Matariki is the Prime Minister’s Science Communications Prize winner for 2019.
Matamua didn’t realise the significance of the manuscript crafted by his ancestor when first given it, but came to fall in love with Māori astronomy and educate thousands of New Zealanders about Matariki.
Through his research, he has discovered a narrative of the Matariki constellation comprising of nine stars. Matamua has drawn a large following on social media with podcasts and videos in English and te reo Māori.
His web series reached one million views in four months and more than 20,000 people follow his Living by the Stars Facebook posts.
Last year, he presented his work to more than 10,000 people in a roadshow at 21 events in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.
Dr Michelle Dalrymple
The Christchurch teacher is the first maths teacher to win the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize.
Head of the mathematics and statistics at Cashmere High School, Dalrymple said every student deserved a champion and was devoted to sharing her research and knowledge with other teachers around the country.
She used engaging and novel ways to connect her students and other teachers into mathematics and statistics, and said a fundamental part of her teaching is incorporating whanaungatanga, or teaching through relationships.
Her nominator said her teaching stands out because it was strongly based on cutting-edge mathematics and statistics education research while providing creative and fun strategies that are inspiring for her students.
A robot that’s designed for elderly and people with disabilities to take wheelie bins to and from the kerb, has won 17-year-old Christchurch school student the Prime Minister’s 2019 Future Scientist Prize.
A Year 13 student at Burnside High School, Thomas designed “Wheelie Drive” after noticing his elderly neighbour and grandparents struggled to use their wheelie bins.
For a student who doesn’t study technology or design, Thomas showed great tenacity in researching and problem-solving.
He used Lego models for his first prototype before learning about micro-processors, programming, autonomous navigation and sourcing the many intricate components he needed to build a full-size self-navigating robot.
His nominator said he was a very talented engineer who’s developed and produced a system that adult technologists would struggle to design and make.