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PM’s Science Prize awarded to researchers


Friday 16 December 2011 3:25pm

PMs Science Prize 2011

Members of Otago’s award-winning Centre for Chemical and Physical Oceanography:
Dr Evelyn Armstrong, Dr Sylvia Sander, Associate Russell Frew, Professor Philip Boyd, Professor Keith Hunter, Dr Kim Currie

One of New Zealand’s highest honours, the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, has been awarded to Otago’s Centre for Chemical and Physical Oceanography.

The centre, a collaboration between the University of Otago’s Chemistry Department and NIWA, has been investigating how the ocean controls Earth’s climate and evaluating ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

Co-director and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Keith Hunter says the honour projects the centre onto the world stage. “It’s the top prize in science in the country and it’s an outstanding award for science at Otago.”

He stresses that the partnership with NIWA has been crucial to their joint success since it began in 1996.

“The spirit of complementary collaboration has been there right through and has worked out very well.”

Principal scientist Professor Philip Boyd of NIWA is based in the Chemistry Department. He says the win was unexpected as there was impressive competition from more mainstream branches of science.

“Ocean science is a bit of a rarity, so we are thrilled and a bit surprised – it really hasn’t sunk in yet.”

University Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne says this prestigious national prize recognises the efforts of a particularly talented and dedicated team of Otago and NIWA researchers.

“I congratulate Professor Boyd and the team for the hard work and dedication which has led to this important honour, and for the major contribution they have made to international knowledge of oceans facing climate change,” she says.

The $500,000 prize aims to promote and encourage science in New Zealand and is awarded for achievements that have had a significant national or international impact.

The team’s project is the result of more than a decade of research into the relationship between the ocean, past climate and climate change.

Professor Boyd, a phytoplankton physiologist, proved that it was possible to enhance the oceans’ ability to remove carbon dioxide by fertilising surface waters with iron to promote phytoplankton blooms.

In some of the largest experiments the world has ever seen – they were visible from space – the team tested the theory in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean south of New Zealand.

As phytoplankton absorbed carbon dioxide the team observed the removal of additional atmospheric carbon dioxide into the ocean.

Such removal has implications for climate in the distant past — when desert dust supplied more iron to the ocean — and for the present as a potential means of reducing greenhouse gases.

But although the blooms happened as predicted, they also released other potent greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide that would offset the climatic effects of the removal of carbon dioxide. So this is not a useful tool for geo-engineers hoping to find a way to mitigate climate change.

The results will guide international climate mitigation policy as well as cementing the team’s reputation worldwide, which should help to attract more funding to New Zealand.

“When seeking funding one of the key things is having a convincing reputation to be able to deliver,” says Professor Hunter. “This prize marks us as a group that knows how to deliver world class science.”

The other team members are NIWA’s Dr Rob Murdoch (co-director), Dr Cliff Law and Dr. Kim Currie, and the Department of Chemistry’s Associate Professor Russell Frew, Dr Robert Strzepek, Dr Sylvia Sander and Dr Evelyn Armstrong.

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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