New Zealand S&T Leader Describes Effort to Engage the World on Environmental Problems


Helen Anderson

About 40% of New Zealand scientists collaborate with U.S. colleagues, and the island nation is seeking to become even more engaged with foreign partners as it pursues solutions to global environmental problems, a top New Zealand science official said at AAAS.

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"We have a unique perspective that we can and, indeed, must offer in finding solutions to global environmental challenges," said Helen Anderson, chief executive of New Zealand's Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. Her 15 July lecture was sponsored by AAAS, the Washington Science Policy Alliance, and the Embassy of New Zealand.

With a landscape so rugged and picturesque that it was featured in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, New Zealand "is a great natural laboratory for unraveling the mysteries of our environment," Anderson said. The environment, she added, "plays a huge part in our cultural identity," and that is reflected in the kinds of scientific research New Zealanders have pursued in areas such as energy, climate change, food production, and water management.

"New Zealand, as a country, has been a real leader in trying to look at the different ways of sustainability and, critically, the science and technology that underpins it," said Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer for AAAS.

In her talk, Anderson highlighted some of her nation's partnerships, including more than 50 years of cooperation with the United States in Antarctic research, and looked toward new areas of potential collaboration, such as alternative energy sources.

Christchurch, New Zealand, is the gateway to Antarctica and home to the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program. In Antarctica, the U.S. research base at McMurdo Sound is within walking distance of New Zealand's Scott Base. American researchers have been working closely with New Zealand colleagues on several projects, including the ANDRILL drilling program for geological sediment cores in the Ross Sea area. The project (which also includes researchers from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy) is providing insights into Antarctica's climate history and the potential for sea level rise in the future due to melting of Antarctic ice.

While the McMurdo and Scott research stations burn fossil fuels for their energy, that is about to change, Anderson said. A New Zealand power company is developing three wind turbines to provide power to both bases. "It is a good example of a win-win situation," she said, allowing the bases to reduce their production of heat-trapping greenhouse gases while also keeping the Antarctic environment more pristine. The turbines should save an estimated 121,500 gallons of fuel oil a year, Anderson said.

Back home, New Zealand has been actively pursuing wind energy, given the strong winds that sweep across the North and South islands. There are 400 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity, 100 megawatts under construction, and talk of installing another gigawatt of capacity, Anderson said. Wellington, the capital, is in a zone where the winds are highly variable in strength and direction, even hour to hour, she said. Since New Zealand is surrounded by ocean, there is no easy way to install a network of sensors for up-to-the-minute data on approaching winds. So New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has been downscaling computer climate models to forecast winds on a regional scale of only a few kilometers.

"Responding to global environmental changes requires new approaches like this from science," Anderson said. In this case, that means linking climate modeling to regional and satellite data sensors as well as management of the electrical grid, she said.

New Zealand also is developing novel models for predicting floods up to 40 hours in advance, based on rainfall predictions. Developing accurate flood models also can help scientists convince the public that their longer-term climate models are authoritative, Anderson said. "If we've not got the trust for two days' time, you can see how challenging it is to be predicting 100 years' time," Anderson said. It is important for the public to understand and trust the processes of predictive models as much as the numbers that result, she said.

On the alternative energy front, New Zealand has significant geothermal potential. "Harnessing that resource is a very science-intensive activity," Anderson said. New Zealand was a pioneer in developing geothermal plants in the 1950s and they now account for about 10 to 12% of the nation's electricity production. A new facility under development will produce twice as much energy from the same amount of underground steam as one of the existing plants, she said.

The geothermal work has been feeding into an Energy Development in Island Nations (EDIN) initiative by New Zealand, Iceland, and the U.S. Department of Energy. One aim of the year-old initiative is to exploit geothermal energy sources to help promote energy self-sufficiency in some Pacific islands. The joint initiative is meant to enhance global energy security and address global climate change through the promotion of clean, renewable, sustainable energy technologies.

Anderson, a geophysicist, has more than a passing interest in the geothermal and seismic activity in New Zealand and Pacific islands. She is a specialist on the mechanics of large earthquakes and spoke at AAAS on the same day that a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the southwest coast of New Zealand. "As I've told many people, big earthquakes don't happen very often, so I had to get a bit of a day job," Anderson joked. "So here I am on my day job, and a great earthquake occurs in New Zealand." Thankfully, she said, the quake occurred in the Fiordland region, a remote part of New Zealand, and no one was harmed.

Another New Zealand energy focus is to make use of marginal lands to grow softwood forests for conversion to biofuels. Of 1.8 million hectares (about 4.5 million acres) of plantation forests in New Zealand, 98% are composed of softwoods--mostly Monterey pine and some Douglas fir, Anderson said. Scientists estimate that New Zealand eventually could meet most of its liquid fuel needs from such softwood forests without using valuable food-producing lands. Use of softwoods for biofuels could be adopted elsewhere as well, she said. The research is led by Scion, New Zealand's forest research institute, and they are partnering with U.S. organizations such as Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, Calif., and Verenium, a private company with headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

In its efforts to curb heat-trapping atmospheric gases, New Zealand must pay particular attention to the fact that about 52% of its greenhouse emissions come from agricultural sources, and most of that consists of methane emissions from farm animals, including 38 million sheep and 10 million head of cattle. Most of New Zealand's livestock are farmed "free range" in pasture-based systems, a less carbon-intense form of production than the feedlots common in the United States. But methane emissions from burping animals remain a major source of concern if New Zealand is to reach long-term goals for reducing greenhouse gases.

"Our scientists are working to better understand and control what happens in the stomachs of sheep and cows," Anderson said.

Scientists have been sequencing the DNA of bacteria in the gut of the animals, seeking to identify potential ways to inhibit methane production by knocking out the bugs that produce it. The project involves geneticists, microbiologists, chemists and agricultural scientists. The team also is exploring whether it is possible to immunize animals to produce antibodies against the range of methane-producing bugs that reside in their stomachs. And New Zealand scientists are also drawing on their expertise in animal husbandry to identify sheep that are either high or low emitters of methane. The goal is to breed animals with high agricultural productivity (for meat, wool or milk) but low methane production.

While the effort to reduce methane will require scientific advances in fields such as genetics and immunology, Anderson said, it also will require some changes in behavior by farmers. In developing scientific and technological solutions, she said, researchers must be mindful that farmers are the end users of the technology and the solutions must also work for them.

The challenge is not just significant for New Zealand. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has calculated that, when added to emissions from manure, the methane from the guts of ruminant animals accounts for about 80% of the world's agricultural methane emissions, Anderson said, and 35 to 40% of all humanity's methane emissions.

"This is one area where New Zealand science, through technology transfer, can not only address our own challenges, but can help reduce emissions well beyond our own shore," Anderson said.

Given the magnitude of such global environmental challenges, she said, there is a need for unprecedented international collaboration to address them. She noted the importance of science in moving societies toward a more secure, sustainable future.

"Science is an international activity, and often the boundaries of science have little to do with international boundaries at all," Anderson said. "Science often occurs in spite of international boundaries not because of them. But the challenges we face are international and require the besting thinking that we can come up with globally."

The U.S.-New Zealand science relationship is strong and working very well, but there are opportunities to expand this relationship with new thinking, new ideas, and new approaches, she said.

Asked about attitudes toward science in her nation, Anderson said that New Zealanders hold science in high regard but do not think it is relevant to their lives. "Now that's amazing," she said.

Her agency is working with teachers to help develop resources to tell youngsters the relevance of New Zealand science through the eyes of young researchers in Antarctica and in fields such as sports science. "But look, no one has a silver bullet on this one," Anderson said. She mentioned President Barack Obama's renewed emphasis on science as part of policy-making, and said it "is an extremely important signal to scientists worldwide and I hope that it will also be seen as relevant to young people who want to take up science."