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New Research Facility At Otago Launched

Science Minister Launches New Research Facility At Otago

Cutting edge equipment allows scientists to probe climate change secrets of Antarctica

A new $600,000 palaeomagnetic research facility - the only one of its type in the Southern hemisphere - was launched by Science Minister and Dunedin North MP, Pete Hodgson at the University of Otago today.

The facility will be used to find out more about the nature and processes of global environmental change in Antarctica, the Southern Ocean and New Zealand.

"We've got this big climate engine sitting as an ice-cube in Antarctica," says Geology Department's Dr Gary Wilson, initiator of the palaeomagnetic and climate research programme. "And we not only feel the effects of this here in New Zealand, but we also influence, to some extent, what happens down there. The opportunity to tie those events and processes at the margin of the ice-sheet to what's occurring at lower latitude locations like ours is what motivates me in this work."

A state of the art cryogenic (or supercooled) magnetometer - one of the most sensitive in the world - is housed in a magnetically shielded room purpose-built and designed in house at the University. As well as individual palaeomagnetic samples, it enables 1.5 metre long sediment cores to be measured making it ideal for marine, lake and land-based work.

Palaeomagnetism measures fossil magnetism in rocks and sediments to determine when the sediment was deposited. Individual layers as old as 100 million years can be dated to a precision of less than a thousand years. "It means we're able to pin-point climatic conditions, earth deformation and changes in the natural environment in a time-scale that means something to us," says Dr Wilson, who returned to New Zealand from Oxford University last year. In conjunction with the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Otago has already invested more than half a million dollars in the construction of the facility.

Mr Hodgson, the Minister for Research, Science and Technology, is also the minister responsible for New Zealand's climate change policy. "New Zealand does world class climate research and has contributed significantly to international understanding of climate processes," he says. "I'm pleased to see Otago University investing in scientists and equipment like this to enable that leading position to be maintained. Understanding and responding to climate change is one of the greatest scientific challenges facing the world."

The scientific programme will initially involve two broad-based areas of research: to establish the timing and rates of environmental change, within a global context; and to document the evolution of land and sea climate using long-core measurement techniques now available with this magnetometer. Work on cores collected by the five-nation Antarctic Drilling project (ANDRILL) will also become a major focus of the research.

"The geology of this country offers a unique opportunity to study past climates and oceans - and to now be able to do this at such a high resolution is very exciting," says Dr Wilson. "After being offshore for a decade, it's wonderful to come back to New Zealand and see the significant investment by government and the University of Otago in what I believe is extremely important research."

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