Prime Minister’s awards recognise NZ science

The top award in the  2011 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, $500,000, has been awarded to a team of scientists from Otago University and NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) for research which debunked proposals  to use geo-engineering to manipulate algal blooms in the Southern Ocean to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The nine-member team under the aegis of the Centre for Chemical and Physical Oceanography at Otago University of Otago, investigated the central role the ocean played in influencing climate over the past million years. And it steered New Zealand to a leading role on geo-engineering with evidence that fertilising the iron-deficient Southern Ocean to create huge phytoplankton growth would not remove enough carbon dioxide from the air to mitigate or solve global warming.

The team experimented in the Southern Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska by pouring an iron solution on the sea to fertilise blooms big enough to be seen from space, but the algae took up less CO2 than expected, and the costly work had side effects, including the release of other more potent greenhouse gases.

“Around the world, there is a growing lobby, which includes influential people like Bill Gates, for using geo-engineering to claw back some of the carbon dioxide humans are emitting,” team leader Professor Philip Boyd said today. “Our research has shown that adding iron to the ocean is not going to be an effective way to do that.”

“We are … increasingly aware that careful stewardship is needed. If we are going to pass on a pristine environment to future generations, we have to understand why the climate is changing and what effects it will have on the ocean”. The team plans to use $400,000 of the prize to study Southern Ocean phytoplankton.

Other members of the team were Dr Evelyn Armstrong and  Dr Kim Currie of NIWA’s research unit, Associate Professor Russell Frew and Professor Keith Hunter, Dr Sylvia Sander, and Dr Robert Strzepek (all of Otago University),  Dr Cliff Law NIWA principal scientist, and Dr Rob Murdoch, NIWA’s general manager of research.

Another $100,000  went to University of Canterbury geologist Dr Mark Quigley, who won the PM’s science media communication prize, which included $50,000 to develop his skills. He published seven peer-reviewed research articles, delivered more than 40 lectures on the Christchurch quakes and ran a website while living in a condemned red zone house surrounded by liquefaction and with no sewerage, water and power.

And a glacial sedimentologist at Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre, Dr Rob McKay,  won the PM’s 2011 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize, worth $200,000 for using marine sedimentary records and glacial deposits to reconstruct episodes of melting and cooling in Antarctica over the past 13 million years and show how they influenced global sea levels and climate.

You can read a press release, detailing the prizes and winners, here.

Examples of media coverage:

National Business Review: Victoria researcher wins top science prize

Dominion Post: Antarctic researcher among top science award winners

Idealog: Prime Minister’s Science Prizes doled in out in praise of climate change, eyes and earthquakes PM announces science prizes

Radio New Zealand: Top science award awarded to NIWA and Otago University