Natural science has taken centre stage as one of the most important topics of research for the modern age. Some of New Zealand’s top natural scientists at the University of Waikato are working to uncover ways to reduce the damaging effects of human activity on the environment.
This research couldn’t come soon enough. Professor Louis Schipper, an environmental biogeochemist at the University of Waikato, says the Earth has limits regarding the burdens that are being placed on it. He says these limits, or planetary boundaries, may have already been reached.
“The pressure humans are putting on the world is exceeding what the globe can handle,” he says. “Three planetary boundaries that are currently of most concern are biodiversity loss, excess nutrients, and climate change.”
Professor Schipper says natural science research is important for understanding how the planet will respond to these pressures. Research from the University of Waikato is helping to answer important questions such as ‘what is the rate of environmental change?’ and crucially, ‘how long do we have left to respond?’
Natural science research is also helping to reveal what controls are in place for biodiversity loss and climate change, for example excess nitrogen, and how to mitigate the impact of these stressors.
“All of those things require a detailed understanding of how the environment operates,” says Professor Schipper. “To address these kinds of problems you need a broad understanding of the environmental sciences.”
The Faculty of Science and Engineering is conducting research on greenhouse gases from agriculture, working towards the 4 per 1000 initiative from the 2015 UN Paris Agreement. The initiative is a voluntary one aimed at implementing farming practices that will improve the amount of carbon in the soil.
Professor Schipper says a 4 per 1000 annual growth rate of soil carbon stock would “be challenging but contribute greatly to offsetting fossil fuel emissions”.
“Finding ways to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in soil – that would be a good thing for both the climate and the health of soil.”
Waikato scientists are looking at alternative grass swathes as a way to put more carbon in soil and reduce the soil’s carbon losses.
Professor Conrad Pilditch is undertaking research on nutrient and sediment runoff from agriculture into the marine environment. He says this runoff causes ongoing stress and can damage biodiversity.
The national study, called Tipping Points, is part of the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge that seeks to enhance the value of New Zealand’s marine resources while providing a healthy marine environment for future generations.
Professor Pilditch says evidence from around the world shows that stressors on the marine environment do not behave in a linear manner as expected.
“We expect it to gradually decline and then we can pull back. But ecosystems are capable of really rapid change,” he says. “The reality is things can flip really quickly.”
Twenty-two field sites with varying levels of sedimentation have been set up in 15 harbours and estuaries in New Zealand to assess the potential for rapid changes in ecosystems.
Scientists are using slow release fertiliser to mimic increasing levels of nutrient runoff to identify what activities are likely to cause such changes and what parts of the ecosystem will most likely be affected.
“We will measure the ability of the sediments to process the nutrients and how the animals respond,” says Professor Pilditch.
The knowledge will be used to help with coastal management in New Zealand.
“We need to move from hindsight to foresight and see how things are changing.”
Natural science researchers are needed more than ever to offer foresight into the way our planet is changing. The University of Waikato offers qualifications in Environmental Science, Biological Science, and Earth Science.