Earth Day 2018: Celebrating Kiwi-American cooperation in tackling environmental challenges

Ridge to Reef Technical Officer, Fiafia Rex holding one of the captured skinks. Photo credit:Ridge to Reef Project.

April 22nd celebrates Earth Day; a day to raise awareness of current environmental challenges and celebrate progress in environmental protection over the past decades.

New Zealand and the United States share a long history of scientific cooperation, particularly in environmental science, and working together to tackle environmental issues – as a result, science is a cornerstone of the U.S.-NZ relationship, and the U.S. is the largest outside source for investment in New Zealand sciences.

On Earth Day 2018 we celebrate the ingenuity of those who are rising to the many challenges to protect our environment and natural heritage – here you’ll find just some of the many collaborative U.S.-NZ projects in this area.

The Ross Sea Marine Protected Area going into force

Antarctica’s Ross Sea – now the world’s largest Marine Protected Area. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.
Antarctica’s Ross Sea – the world’s largest Marine Protected Area. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.

On December 1st, 2018, the United States and New Zealand welcomed the entry into force of the Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area (MPA) – the world’s largest – covering 1.55 million square kilometers (about twice the size of the State of Texas or about 7% of the Southern Ocean), of which 1.12 million square kilometers is fully protected.

The Ross Sea MPA was a joint initiative of the United States and New Zealand, and the result of unanimous support for the proposal within the 25-member Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).  The Ross Sea in Antarctica is an area of unique biodiversity and one of the last unspoiled marine environments on the planet. At different times of the year, the region can be home to 32% of the world’s Adélie penguins, 26% of all emperor penguins, five seal species, eleven bird species, twelve whale species and 95+ fish species, 50% of Ross Sea killer whales and around 30% of Antarctic petrels.

The Ross Sea Region MPA will be in force for 35 years, protecting a rich and productive ecosystem that has thriving, intact communities of top predators, including whales, seals, penguins, and sea birds.

Antarctica – a location for world-leading environmental research

Caption: USAF supply plane lands on ice runway in Antarctica. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.
Caption: USAF supply plane lands on ice runway in Antarctica. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.

U.S and NZ scientists conduct research in Antarctica that cannot be conducted anywhere else in the world, from astrophysics to zoology.  The 2017-18 Antarctic season marks 61 years of U.S.-New Zealand cooperation in Antarctica, with the collaboration being the most enduring part of the bilateral relationship.

The U.S. operates three year-round stations in Antarctica, two research vessels and numerous seasonal field camps in the summer, managed by the United States Antarctic Program, and supported by a team in Christchurch who operate alongside New Zealand’s International Antarctic Centre.

Today, U.S. and NZ scientists are advancing knowledge of the continent itself and the entire globe, from research on marine life able to survive in freezing water to the continent’s role in global sea-level rise.  Researchers are also able to peer into the depths of space and probe the nature and origin of our universe from the continent’s unique perspective at the bottom of the globe.

Recently, U.S. and NZ cooperation on Antarctica led our two countries to establish the world’s southernmost wind farm.  The three turbines on Antarctica’s Ross Island have cut diesel use at McMurdo Station (U.S.) and Scott Base (NZ) by 120,000 gallons a year.

Collaborative marine research across the South Pacific

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, the only federal vessel dedicated to ocean exploration. Photo credit: NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research.
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, the only federal vessel dedicated to ocean exploration. Photo credit: NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regularly conducts oceanographic, atmospheric and marine research across the South Pacific, often collaborating with New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

NOAA’s CAPSTONE project, which visited the waters of Republic of Kiribati, Tokelau, Samoa, and the Cook Islands to help map and understand deep-water geography and conditions, coordinated with Cook Islands’ elders and cultural leaders on the naming of newly discovered underwater features.  

NOAA and NIWA also regularly collaborate on a range of marine research – often using NIWA’s research vessels the RV Tangaroa and RV Kararoa.

Helping discover a skink thought to be near extinction in Niue

Ridge to Reef Technical Officer, Fiafia Rex holding one of the captured skinks. Photo credit:Ridge to Reef Project.
Ridge to Reef Technical Officer, Fiafia Rex holding one of the captured skinks. Photo credit:Ridge to Reef Project.

In international herpetology news, August 2017 saw the re-discovery of the Olive small-scaled skink emoia lawesi on Niue.

Thinking the skink was close to extinction, Niuean officials conducted a reptile survey with support from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Villanova University, which found no trace of the elusive reptile – but resulting publicity of the search alerted a sharp-eyed tourist.

The tourist submitted photos of a large skink spotted on her holiday, which was identified by the Niuean Ministry of Natural Resources as the missing lizard.  USGS herpetologist Stacie Hathaway said, “This is incredibly exciting finding that this endangered species, known globally only from Niue and American Samoa, still persists on Niue.”

Fighting back against invasive species

Invasive plant species smothering native plants. Photo credit: Wikipedia.
Invasive plant species smothering native plants. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

U.S. and New Zealand scientists have been sharing best practices on combating invasive species for years, saving both countries’ agricultural sectors millions of dollars and ensuring that both remain competitive in the global commodities market.  

New Zealand’s heavy investment in its border biosecurity and its remote geography provides a real-world laboratory for U.S. scientists to learn from and observe – supported by collaborative workshops and research programs, with scientists from both nations regularly engaging to tackle invasive species and maintain biosecurity.