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University of Waikato collaborates on global project to secure Antarctica’s future

20 May 2020

The University of Waikato, along with other New Zealand universities (Auckland University of Technology, Otago University and Victoria University of Wellington), has been named as a collaborator on a significant Australian research programme, Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF).

The Australian Government has awarded AUD$36 million to the research programme led by Monash University, that brings together researchers from the University of Wollongong, the Queensland University of Technology, University of New South Wales, James Cook University, University of Adelaide, the Western Australian Museum, and the South Australian Museum.

Monash University’s Professor Steven Chown will be SAEF Director, and University of Wollongong’s Senior Professor Sharon Robinson will be Deputy-Director (Science Implementation).

The University of Waikato is represented by the Dean of Science, Professor Margaret Barbour, who will be working with Professor Sharon Robinson to uncover past environmental conditions.

Peak industry bodies are also involved, including the Australian Antarctic Division, Geoscience Australia, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, and the Bureau of Meteorology.

In addition, SAEF will link with the Antarctic national programs of Chile, Norway, South Africa and the UK, and with the Department of Conservation in New Zealand.

The programme aims to deliver unprecedented research capability for securing Antarctic environments in the face of uncertain change. The various teams will observe and understand how the Antarctic climate has changed over the past 40 years using new evidence, in order to forecast environmental change in the future.

The SAEF also has a multi-disciplinary focus, looking at not just the climate but the political system in place in Antarctica; the Antarctic Treaty.

Professor Barbour will be involved in the development of high resolution climate proxies, using the stable oxygen isotope composition of Antarctic moss.

Moss and Penguins at Deception Island.

“Just like trees with their rings, moss grows in such a way that you can produce a chronological record from it. The tips are the most recent years, going back in time as you move down to the soil level,” says Professor Barbour.

“By measuring thenatural stable isotope composition of moss, we’ll be able to get information about what the Antarctic climate was like in the past.”

Antarctic Moss.

The University of Waikato has a strong history of research on the Antarctic continent, with the most recent involving a team that received nearly $1m in Marsden research funding to study unique micro-organisms that live in the geothermal fumerols of Mt Erebus.

That project builds on previous research undertaken by Professor Craig Cary and his team of Professor Ian McDonald and Dr Charles Lee, which was first funded by National Geographic then by a previous Marsden grant. Their most recent papers indicated the need to go deeper into the sub-surface of Mount Erebus to find truly novel and likely endemic microorganisms, resulting in the new study currently taking place.

“As well as our previous research, the University of Waikato has a rich 40 year history of working on the top of Mt Erebus. Emeritus Professors Roy Daniel and Hugh Morgan, who built the Thermophile Research Unit at the University, went up the mountain first to cultivate the micro-organisms found there,” says Professor Cary.

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