Life’s work on the ice

Life’s work on the ice Professor Gary Wilson in the dry valleys in Antarctica.

19 June 2019

Professor Gary Wilson (Hamilton 1980-1984) has studied and worked at some of the world’s top universities, and last year returned to Hamilton for a three-month sabbatical at Waikato University.

Gary, a professor in Marine Science at Otago University, is one of the world’s leading experts on Antarctica. In a career spanning 30 years, he was one of the early specialists in climate change science. Along the way, he has been awarded some of the world’s top academic scholarships.

“If you warm the planet and melt the ice, then it goes into the ocean and sea level rises. So, I really got interested in trying to understand what makes that happen.”

He spoke to Network before embarking on yet another research trip to Antarctica – his 30th. More than four years of his life have been spent on the ice continent.

He will be leading the mission, sleeping in a tent, on the edge of the Ross Ice shelf in West Antarctica, 800km from Scott Base.

While in Hamilton for three months, Gary’s youngest son Adam, 12, attended Southwell and Jacob, 14, is enrolled at St Paul’s.

After leaving St Paul’s in the mid-1980s Gary, now 51, went to Wellington’s Victoria University, to complete his undergraduate study.

It was the beginning of academic life, which has seen him study and teach at leading universities in New Zealand, the United States and England.

As a school leaver, he enrolled in a science degree, majoring in maths and physics. But he didn’t enjoy the physics, so dropped science after the first year and instead enrolled in a music degree, building on his interest from St Paul’s where he was a top clarinet player.

In those days, students had to enrol in four science subjects for that degree, “so I enrolled in maths, physics and chemistry, and the only other thing that fitted my timetable was geology. I enjoyed the geology and kept it going and ended up completing both degrees – a Bachelor of Science in Geology; and a Bachelor of Music.”

It was geology that came out tops in terms of career choice. “There came a point where I had to actually choose something that would pay a wage – and music is not one of them!”

He was invited to do honours in geology, which he did and was then offered a scholarship to Cambridge University, although he soon changed direction. “I was pretty clear about what I wanted, which was to work on the Antarctic and the problem of melting ice and rising sea levels, and they weren’t really familiar with it.”

Instead, after a few months in the UK, he took up another scholarship opportunity, through the New Zealand University Grants Committee, to return to Victoria University in 1990.

In what was to be a long stint in the United States, Gary took up a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Nebraska, where he undertook both research and teaching. That was followed by a stint at The Ohio State University on a Byrd Fellowship (named after the famous Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd) at the Byrd Polar Research Centre, considered the home of polar science in the US.

He then got a Foundation for Research, Science and Technology Fellowship (equivalent these days to the country’s top early career science award, the Rutherford Fellowship) which took him to GNS Science in Wellington researching what drives ice to melt and sea levels to rise, and vise versa.

Then came a call from the University of Oxford. He flew over for an interview a week later and got offered a lectureship in Earth Sciences at Oxford where he worked for four years. It was at Oxford where he met his wife, Kate.

Next was a move to Otago University partly because it gave him the opportunity to get his ‘hands dirty’ with research, which was harder to do from the UK.

He started as a lecturer in Geology, then took up a professorship in Marine Science. He has been in that role since, aside from a five-year secondment, at the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute; and to be the Chief Science Advisor at Antarctica New Zealand in Christchurch.

During his sabbatical at Waikato University, Gary has worked with fellow “Antarcticans” developing a paleothermometer, to measure past temperature.

“If you are trying to build a sophisticated climate model to work out what causes Antarctica to melt you need temperature. So, what we are trying to do, is develop that ability to work out the temperature using the different assemblages of ancient bacteria frozen into the ground.”

He says the scale of the impact of global warming is enormous. “If you were to melt all of the ice in Antarctica, you are looking at global sea levels rising by about 60 metres.”

Gary firmly believes individuals can do their bit, to reduce carbon emissions, which he says we “absolutely need to do” to tackle global warming.

“When you look at your own carbon footprint, the majority of it is split three ways – a third of it comes from the food we eat, a third of it is transport, and a third of it is heating and running your home.”

“If we each reduce carbon emissions by 2% per year then it becomes a tractable problem.”

Gary is a trustee of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, and this year was appointed Vice President of the global organisation, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

The family, who live in Dunedin, enjoy spending time at their crib in Naseby in Central Otago and all that is on offer in the outdoors there – mountain biking, hiking, and winter sports. They are also setting out to complete the great New Zealand walks.

Gary’s father Albert lives in Waingaro, near Ngaruawahia, and the time in the Waikato this year allowed the family to spend more time with him.

Written by Monica Holt

(Source: Network Issue 97)