Antarctic Research Centre wins the Prime Minister’s Science Prize

The world will be better prepared for the worst effects of climate change due to Antarctic ice-sheet discoveries by the ‘Melting Ice & Rising Seas Team’, from Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre in partnership with GNS Science and NIWA, was awarded the 2019 Prime Minister’s Science Prize.

Led by the Antarctic Research Centre, the team of more than 20 glaciologists, geologists, and social scientists from the University, GNS Science, and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) found ice melt from climate change could lift global sea-levels by up to 1.4 metres by 2100.

This is the second time the $500,000 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, New Zealand’s most valuable science award, has come to the University.

The 2010 prize was awarded to the late Sir Paul Callaghan and magnetic resonance researchers for work which has since been successfully commercialised by University spin-off company Magritek.

This year’s prize shows the depth of climate change scholarship at the University and the impact and influence this work has had. The winners were announced this afternoon via livestream.

Using ice and sediment cores drilled on annual expeditions to the Antarctic, the ‘Melting Ice and Rising Seas’ project team improved the accuracy of earlier Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts of a one-metre rise by the same year by showing Antarctic ice sheet melting in the past had been more than previously thought. They then trained their computer models on past conditions and showed that the contribution to sea-level rise from Antarctic ice melt was underestimated.

Their findings on ice melt will allow more accurate predictions of what may happen this century. That will help policy makers with organisations from the United Nations to local New Zealand councils develop the most robust plans possible to deal with the effects of the climate crisis.

Professor Tim Naish, a former Director of Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre, led the team and says the impact of their work can already be seen around New Zealand.

“Our science feeds directly into national policy and guidance on how to manage sea-level rise. We are working with government, regional councils, and local authorities. And these new predictions—we’ve already started to produce them—will be implemented into adaptation measures.

“South Dunedin, for example, is only half a metre above sea-level, so it’s going to have to either be protected or go through a process of managed retreat from the coast. Our work is of real benefit to those in that community.

“I think our work covers the full ‘science value chain' from fundamental discovery science about Antarctica’s role in the climate system, to how it will affect sea-level rise, to the practical applications of dealing with the consequences. That’s the strength of it.

“We’re reducing the uncertainties around sea-level rise for New Zealand and the world, meaning we’ll be better prepared and able to adapt to it.”

Other Antarctic Research Centre team members included current Director Associate Professor Rob McKay, former Directors Professor Andrew Mackintosh (now Head of the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University) and Emeritus Professor Peter Barrett, Associate Professor Nick Golledge, Associate Professor Nancy Bertler (Director of the Antarctic Science Platform), Associate Professor Richard Levy, Emeritus Professor Lionel Carter, Associate Professor Brian Anderson, Dr Huw Horgan, Dr Ruzica Dadic, Dr Warren Dickinson, Dr Gavin Dunbar, Dr Shaun Eaves, Dr Liz Keller, Alex Pyne, Darcy Mandeno, Michelle Dow and Dao Polsiri. Other leading climate change researchers at the University were also key members of the team: Professor James Renwick (Head of the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences), Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley (Director of the Centre for Science in Society), and Dr Judy Lawrence (of the University’s Climate Change Research Institute).

Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Margaret Hyland says the win is particularly gratifying because it reflects the importance of ambitious, enduring research projects.

“This work is a key example of the importance of University-led, long-term research in preparing New Zealand for the future.

“When the Antarctic Research Centre was founded in 1972, the risks of climate change and sea-level rise were not really on the public radar. Now, the team is working with government and local authorities throughout the country to prepare for and help mitigate the impact of sea-level rise on our communities.

“Our University is the pre-eminent centre for climate research in New Zealand, and this prize is only the latest addition to an incredible track record of excellence.

“Our longstanding research presence in Antarctica and ability to bring together a diverse team of internationally-renowned scholars means we’re uniquely placed to inform and affect the decisions of policymakers and leaders. We’re also committed to making a strong contribution to the Asia-Pacific community’s fight against the potentially devastating effects of climate change.”

Rob McKay says that the University’s strong partnerships across the sector played a major role in the project’s success.

Nancy Bertler and Richard Levy also hold leadership positions at GNS Science, and key team member Dr Rob Bell of NIWA is New Zealand’s leading coastal hazards expert.

“Our Antarctic Research Centre has worked closely with GNS Science and NIWA for many years, and this prize is a prime example of how sustained collaboration with experts from other science agencies can lead to larger scientific discoveries with greater relevance to society,” says Rob McKay.

Tim Naish says the team’s major contribution has been in improving the ability of ice-sheet models to predict how much Antarctic melting will add to sea-level rise over the next few decades. Nick Golledge, who joined the centre as a postdoctoral research fellow specifically to increase its ice sheet modelling capability, is now leading this field globally, and has published six articles in prestigious scientific journal 'Nature' since 2015.

During the past six years, members of the team have produced a plethora of papers, with 205 published in peer-reviewed journals and an incredible list of 30 papers in the world’s leading interdisciplinary scientific journals: Nature, Science, Nature Climate Change, Nature Geoscience, Nature Communications and PNAS.

Three University members of this year’s winning team have also been recipients of Prime Minister’s Science Prizes in the past.

Rob McKay won the Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize in 2011, while James Renwick and Rebecca Priestley both secured the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize in 2018 and 2016 respectively.

Team members have also been lead authors for the fifth and sixth IPCC Assessment Reports, (Tim Naish and James Renwick, Nick Golledge, and Judy Lawrence), the IPCC’s Special Report on the Oceans and the Cryosphere (Andrew Mackintosh), and are also lead authors of the Ministry for the Environment’s 2017 document on Coastal Hazards and Climate Change: Guidance for Local Government (Rob Bell and Judy Lawrence).

More about the 2019 Prime Minister's Science Prize - Melting Ice & Rising Seas here.