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Antarctic expert wins award for life’s work

Antarctic expert wins award for life’s work

A Victoria University scientist described as New Zealand’s “leading light” in Antarctic science exploration has been awarded a prestigious medal for his groundbreaking research on the icy continent.

Professor Peter Barrett FRSNZ, Director of Victoria’s Antarctic Research Centre, has been named as the recipient of the 2004 Marsden Medal from the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS), awarded annually to scientists who have contributed a lifetime of outstanding service to science in New Zealand.

NZAS Chair, Professor Euan Smith, says Professor Barrett has been at the forefront of Antarctic Earth Science for the last 40 years. As a graduate student he made a "missing link" discovery (published in Science in 1968) of the first tetrapod fossil to be found in Antarctica, thereby clinching the land connection between Antarctica and the other Gondwana continents.

“For past last four decades Professor Barrett’s Antarctic research has been at the forefront of the international field. In addition, he is also an outstanding educator and promoter of science, and has been an inspirational leader and mentor to many young scientists. Professor Barrett’s commitment to science and New Zealand has been phenomenal.”

As an educator Professor Barrett has supervised many postgraduate students, most of whom he has given the unique opportunity of working in Antarctica. Many of his students have themselves progressed to notable careers, both in New Zealand and overseas.

Professor Barrett is currently a Principal Investigator in two Government-funded programmes that are linked to research in Antarctica and climate change. He says he is honoured to received the medal.

“I am delighted - all the more so perhaps because it was truly unexpected. It also gives me a chance to thank publicly my colleagues and students who have shared the excitement and the hard work that have led our current understanding of Antarctic ice sheet behaviourbehaviorss which, to our surprise, is becoming increasingly relevant to the world as a consequence of global warming."

The medal will be presented at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2004 Science Honours Dinner in Christchurch on November 17.

Biography - Professor Peter J Barrett Professor Barrett’s significant contributions to Antarctic research extend back to the 1960’s. As a graduate student he made a “missing link” discovery (published in Science in 1968) of the first tetrapod fossil, thereby clinching the land connection between Antarctica and the other Gondwana continents. Twenty years of further research by Barrett and his students are summarised in a benchmark chapter of “The Geology of Antarctica” published by Oxford University Press in 1991.

In 1973, Professor Barrett was sedimentologist on the first cruise of a deep-sea drilling ship into the Ross Sea, discovering that Antarctic glaciation began over 20 million years earlier than previously thought. Since that time he has been chief scientist on several drilling projects in McMurdo Sound that studied the past history of the East Antarctic ice sheet. These missions established that the Antarctic ice sheet was much warmer and less stable 20-30 million years ago.

The most recent of these missions, the seven-nation Cape Roberts Project, cored through 1500m of sand and mud off the Antarctic coast, recording over 50 fluctuations of the ice sheet from 17 to 34 millions of years ago. These showed that the Antarctic Ice Sheet behaved then just like the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets behaved during the Ice Ages of the last two million years. The warmer global temperatures implied by these early ice sheets and the coastal vegetation found in the strata of those times are projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to return by the end of this century.

Professor Barrett has been mentor and advisor to a team of younger New Zealand and international scientists seeking to promote the integration of geological and geophysical data with modelling of ice sheets, oceans and climate to understand Antarctic Climate Evolution. He has also represented New Zealand on several subcommittees of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

In addition to his Antarctic research he has also published fundamental papers in sedimentology, one of which is the basis for a discussion of the shape of rock particles in a widely used text (Boggs, 2001, 3rd edition).

He was awarded a Polar Medal in 1985 and elected FRSNZ in 1993. In 2001 he received the Premio Internazionale Felice Ippolito, an International Prize awarded by the Italian Academy of Humanities and Sciences in recognition to his services to Antarctic Geosciences. In 2001 he was Allan Cox Visiting Professor at Stanford University.

The New Zealand Geological Society, in a letter supporting Professor Barrett’s nomination for the 2004 Marsden Medal, says:

“Peter Barrett has indeed been New Zealand’s leading light in the exploration of Antarctica for nearly four decades. As well as his own research discoveries, which have been considerable, he has inspired many students in this field and been a prime mover in collaborative international projects on the ice. Although he is justly renowned and well regarded in this field, he has made a lifetime’s career of being an inspirational Earth Science teacher and imaginative sedimentologist.”

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