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Research Fellowship Unlocks Climate Change Secrets

Media Release from:
Ministry of Research, Science and Technology and Waikato University

22 December 2004

Research fellowship helps unlock climate change secrets

Senior scientists at Waikato University, who are trying to understand past changes to New Zealand's climate, are to collaborate with a world-leading German researcher who has been awarded a Julius von Haast Fellowship from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST).

Professor Gerold Wefer, from the University of Bremen, will work with associate professors Chris Hendy (Department of Chemistry) and David Lowe (Earth Sciences), and Dr Penelope Cooke (Earth Sciences), to analyse samples of sediment from the Southern and South Pacific Oceans.

Dr Cooke says she and her colleagues are very pleased at Professor Wefer coming to Hamilton. "His visit will provide important international links for the work we are doing on reconstructing New Zealand's climate records. Professor Wefer is recognised as one of the top scientists in the world working in this area."

MoRST's chief executive Dr Helen Anderson says: "I'm delighted that we're able to help nurture new connections and relationships between New Zealand scientists and their international colleagues.

"When New Zealand researchers work with top scientists from overseas everyone benefits: the researchers, the organisations in which they work, and New Zealand as a whole." Waikato University's research into climate records hopes to improve understanding of past abrupt climate changes to better predict how human activities might impact on global climate changes in the future.

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Dr Hendy was a key player in discovering the phenomena of abrupt climate change - times when the Earth's climate went from glacial conditions to nearly as warm as today in as little as ten years.

Last year, a philanthropic American multi-millionaire Gary Comer, who has a keen interest in the issue, granted him $500,000 to help unpick the puzzle of why these abrupt climate changes occur.

Meanwhile, Dr Lowe and colleagues from the UK and Switzerland have also been working on abrupt climate change and have discovered, from detailed work in remote Te Urewera National Park, that a sudden cooling interval from 13,600 and 12,600 years ago in New Zealand and other parts of the Southern hemisphere was exactly out of phase (not synchronous) with the equivalent event in the Northern Hemisphere which ran from 12,600 to 11,600 years ago.

"This finding, when first published in 2000 by Dr Rewi Newnham (Plymouth University, UK) and me greatly shocked researchers," says Dr Lowe, "but the dating has since been confirmed by new analyses undertaken in Switzerland using new techniques." Dr Newnham is visiting the Waikato climate change group for four months next year to undertake further research.

The coincidental visit by Dr Newnham next year is an added bonus, Dr Cooke said, because he is one of the leading palynologists (pollen specialist) in the world.

The Julius von Haast Fellowship provides for distinguished German researchers to spend up to 12 weeks over a three year period in New Zealand, working collaboratively with their New Zealand colleagues. The fellowship was established last year by MoRST.


Background information on the Julius von Haast Fellowship

The Julius von Haast Fellowship is named after Sir Johann Franz Julius von Haast, a German geologist who came to New Zealand in 1858. He spent many years exploring for mineral deposits in the Nelson and Canterbury provinces in the 1860s, providing major contributions across the spectrum of the natural sciences. He discovered the pass through the Southern Alps linking Westland with Otago, which now carries his name (the Haast Pass). He went on to found the Canterbury Museum at Christchurch where he was Director for 14 years. He was subsequently the first Professor of Geology at the Canterbury University College.

The value of the Fellowship is $114 000 paid over three years. One new appointment will be made in each of 2004, 2005 and 2006, so there will be three fellows in place each year when the scheme is fully operational.

The Fellowship is funded through the Government's International Science and Technology Linkages Fund, which is administered by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.

The Fellowship is a counterpart to the programmes of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which support New Zealand's brightest researchers to undertake research in Germany.


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