Leadership in Antarctic drilling studies rewarded

Associate Professor McKay has been awarded the 2020 Asahiko Taira Scientific Ocean Drilling Research Prize by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) for his contributions to Antarctic glacial history, especially through scientific ocean drilling.

Associate Professor Robert McKay

The prize reflects his work in stratigraphy, sedimentology, paleoceanography and paleoclimate during the 12 years since finishing his doctorate at the University.

In his PhD, Associate Professor McKay documented the first sedimentary evidence of West Antarctic ice sheet variability during the Pliocene, between 2.6 and 5.3 million years ago, when the world was 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide were last at 400 parts per million.

His analysis, from cores drilled through ice in the Ross Sea, led to publications in major journals including the Bulletin of the Geological Society of AmericaNature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Associate Professor McKay says it is a privilege and honour to receive the award.

“The fact that a group of very busy scientists took the time to nominate me is very humbling, particularly in such a chaotic and disrupted year.

“This sort of community-first mindset, and working with such a diverse  group of people from around the world within the ANDRILL (Antarctic Drilling Project) and IODP (Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme) communities, has been instrumental in broadening my scientific perspective and approaches throughout my career.”

Drilling in Antarctica and on the ocean floor is fundamental to understanding how Earth’s ice sheets and ocean will respond to large-scale shifts in climate, he says.

“However, it is logistically difficult to undertake this research, and to do it effectively requires co-operation and investment from countries around the world.

“It is this cooperation that is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, and allows researchers from a relatively small country like New Zealand to be leaders in globally relevant science.”

The prize is for outstanding transdisciplinary research accomplishment in ocean drilling.

Associate Professor McKay “revolutionised” thinking about ice-sheet behaviour, according to his award nomination:

“His … research led to two co-authored papers in Nature Geoscience which showed that the Wilkes subglacial basin, just like the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, had been highly dynamic, with the ice sheet collapsing during warm Pliocene interglacials.

“This work revolutionised our glacial understanding, showing that the marine-based Antarctic ice sheets were highly sensitive to small increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, providing direct geological evidence that validated model simulations.

“The results directly showed the value of ocean drilling and the derived understanding of past climate to improving model predictions of future change.”

Associate Professor McKay received the Prime Minister’s Emerging Scientist Award in 2012, worth $200,000, for his ANDRILL research, as well as a Royal Society of New Zealand Rutherford Discovery Fellowship. He was also part of the team of scientists who won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, announced this year, for their research on the impact of Antarctic ice-sheet melt on climate change.

He was principal investigator for a Marsden Fund IODP programme and led efforts to secure funding of nearly $3.5 million for post-expedition science projects directly linked to IODP, including three Marsden grants, one Rutherford Fellowship grant and several New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute travel grants.