At home in the coldest place on earth, Dr Nancy Bertler is making a major contribution to exploring climate change in Antarctica, and helping New Zealanders understand the consequences of a warming world. As one of the country’s most outstanding research leaders, Nancy has founded the field of ice core research in New Zealand. Taking cores from Antarctic ice sheets, she is unlocking climate history from the past 70,000 years and beyond.
A passionate and compelling science communicator, she is also committed to helping improve New Zealand’s understanding of climate change.
Although it’s not easy operating in such an extreme environment, Nancy has led 13 expeditions to Antarctica. She has an impressive track record of building and leading successful teams.
Born in Germany, Nancy always wanted to work in environmental issues and to be “one of the people who helped save the planet”. She started out as a graphics designer, before discovering that science from a curious point of view – finding out about climate and how it works – was the best way she could make a contribution.
Nancy obtained her bachelor of science degree in Munich, and her Masters in London, before coming to New Zealand in 1999. She began her PhD at Victoria University under the supervision of the Antarctic Research Centre’s director, Professor Peter Barrett.
She wanted to do ice core research for her thesis, but it was a field New Zealand had no history in. So through collaborations with international partners in Germany and the United States, she learned how to recover ice cores and analyse them. After studying the climate history over the last century for the McMurdo Sound region of Antarctica, she wanted to carry on.
For New Zealand to continue conducting world-class ice core research, Nancy fostered new relationships with partners in New Zealand – GNS Science, Antarctica New Zealand, and NIWA - and overseas research organisations.
Through her dedication, the National Ice Core Research Facility was opened at GNS Science in 2007; one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. She also helped organise funding to design and built the Victoria University 1000m ice coring system, one of only four such systems in the world.
Her leadership and organisational skills were critical to the success of the Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution (RICE) project.
As chief scientist, Nancy initiated the collaboration of nine nations, and senior scientists from over 50 organisations, to drill ice cores from West Antarctica. The aim was to improve models predicting the future behaviour of the Ross Ice Shelf, and West Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise.
A 764m deep ice core was carefully transported to the National Ice Core Research laboratory in Wellington, where international teams processed and analysed it under Nancy’s leadership. In 2011, she was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship to help her pursue the RICE project.
Nancy is now developing a 14-nation exploration of West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier region, which is dramatically responding to climate change.
While her scientific expertise lies in understanding Antarctica as a driver of climate change, she cares about the impact of these changes on New Zealand.
In 2005, she established a new course at Victoria University – “Climate Change and New Zealand’s future”- which developed a new model of teaching and discussion around the causes of a warming world. Nancy led the course for six years.
Now a New Zealand citizen, Nancy serves on a number of steering committees around the globe, including the International Partnerships on Ice Coring Sciences (IPICS), the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) and Antarctica in the Global Climate System (AGCS). She is also a driving force in AntClim21 – one of six flagship programmes by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
Nancy is also a member of Taki Ao, the catalyst group of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
An accomplished public speaker, Nancy gives presentations to community and media groups, and works with schools to increase awareness of climate change and motivate students to get involved in science. In 2014, she made a presentation to the NZ parliament on the vulnerability of Antarctic ice sheets and implications for global sea level rise.
An extraordinary role model for young researchers, especially women, she supports numerous students through their studies, many of whom take up positions in leading international ice core research groups. She actively mentors junior employees at both Victoria University and GNS Science.
As an internationally respected research leader, Nancy Bertler has the capacity to continue making a difference for the future of New Zealanders, and the planet we live on.