“The Antarctic Research Centre is making a crucial contribution to global efforts to improve predictions of how the polar ice sheets will melt and contribute to sea-level rise and, more specifically, what the impacts will be for New Zealand,” team leader Professor Tim Naish says.

“Antarctica holds 70 percent of the world’s fresh water and 90 percent of its ice that, if melted, could raise global sea levels by 60 metres. It creates and directs the flow of ocean currents around the world, transporting vast volumes of heat. The surrounding Southern Ocean produces nutrients that feed the world’s oceans.

“We have found that Antarctica is very sensitive to small changes in global climate, and it is often referred to as a bellwether for the rest of the world in the face of climate change and related ecological and environmental crises.

“Although most nations have scaled down their Antarctic science activities in an attempt to keep the continent free of COVID-19, and many governments are falling behind on action required by the Paris Climate Agreement, global warming remains our planet’s biggest existential threat,” Tim says.

The award-winning 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 Antarctica could help lift global sea levels by up to 1.4 metres by 2100.

Using ice and sediment cores drilled on annual expeditions to the Antarctic to improve computer models of the ice sheets, the team showed melting in the past had happened more rapidly than thought, and that previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sea-level rise predictions significantly underestimated the future Antarctic ice-sheet contribution.

That work is enabling policymakers in organisations from the United Nations to local New Zealand councils to better anticipate and manage the impact of sea-level rise.

Dr Richard Levy and Dr Nancy Bertler
Dr Richard Levy and Dr Nancy Bertler, members of the 2019 Prime Minister's Science Prize winning team. Image credit: Prime Ministers Science Prizes Secretariat.
PM Science Proze trophies
The Prime Minister’s Science Prize award. Image supplied by Prime Ministers Science Prizes Secretariat.

Team member Dr Richard Levy, who works at the centre and at GNS Science, is leading work to use the new ice-sheet and sea-level projections in New Zealand, including using GPS and satellite data to measure vertical land movements around our coastline.

Richard says some regions of New Zealand are subsiding at up to 10 millimetres per year, while others are rising by the same rate.

“So our sea-level rise estimates for the future must also include these vertical land movements.”

Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Margaret Hyland says the Antarctic Research Centre’s work highlights how it can help New Zealand prepare for the future.

“A strength of the team is its multidisciplinary make-up and ability to take the research from the fundamental understanding of Antarctica and the climate system all the way through to applied science and impacts that are future-proofing New Zealand to climate change.

“When the Antarctic Research Centre was founded in the 1970s, the risks of climate change and sea-level rise were not really on the public radar.”

Stormy Antarctic sea

Associate Professor Nick Golledge has developed ice-sheet and climate models for the Centre.

The ice-sheet modelling showed, for the first time, that 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius of global warming could be the tipping point for the Antarctic ice sheet.

Nick says that knowledge should be the catalyst for nations to reduce emissions in line with the Paris agreement and prevent multi-metre sea-level rise over the coming decades.

Associate Professor Nancy Bertler, who has a joint appointment at GNS Science and leads the national ice-core research programme, is also a member of the Prime Minister’s Science Prize winning team.

She says the Centre’s researchers all feel the same sense of urgency to address the climate crisis.

“Until late last year, we had sleepless nights because we knew we had about five to 10 years to achieve very significant reductions in our emissions before the world would be committed to dangerous climate-change impacts.

“But then COVID-19 happened, and now, with governments around the world investing trillions of dollars into their struggling economies, we have only about two years before these investments either help us to transition into a sustainable future or lock in a dangerous legacy by propping up old carbon-intensive economies.”
Dr Nancy Bertler

But then COVID-19 happened, and now, with governments around the world investing trillions of dollars into their struggling economies, we have only about two years before these investments either help us to transition into a sustainable future or lock in a dangerous legacy by propping up old carbon-intensive economies.

Centre director Associate Professor Rob McKay says recent support from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment-funded Antarctic Science Platform has allowed the Centre to conduct science beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, to help understanding of how changing oceanic conditions may affect ice-sheet stability.

Another exciting development this year has been opening the platform’s National Modelling Hub, a joint University, GNS Science, and NIWA facility hosted in the Centre and led by Nick Golledge.

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 that has since been successfully commercialised by university spin-off company Magritek.

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

Rob McKay won the 2011 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize, while School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences head Professor James Renwick and Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley both secured the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize, in 2018 and 2016 respectively.

Supporting the

Antarctic Research Centre

For further information, or if you would like to support the ARC, please contact:

Director, Rob McKay, email: robert.mckay@vuw.ac.nz, or

Development Manager, Brad Weekly, email: brad.weekly@vuw.ac.nz.

All donations are made through the Victoria University Foundation, a registered charity, and are therefore eligible for a charitable gift taxation rebate.

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