Sara Milakoff-Fletcher


Job title and place of work

Atmospheric and Ocean Scientist, NIWA. 

What is your role in the CARIM project? What work package are you contributing to?

I’ll be contributing to RA2, Sources and Seasonality of low pH and carbonate in the Hauraki Gulf.  My role is to develop mathematical algorithms that will help link the measurements being made in the Hauraki Gulf with the high resolution modelling of this region.  This will allow us to produce high spatial resolution, seasonally varying maps of carbonates in the Hauraki Gulf, giving scientists and policy makers an idea of the range of conditions organisms in this region already experience.  It will shed new light on the ability of organisms in the New Zealand region to adapt to ocean acidification.  If successful, it could be an important part of a future mitigation strategy, providing rapid information about change in the region. Once proven in the Hauraki Gulf, it could also be adapted and used in other regions of interest.

What do you do on an average work day?

This is a tough one, since I have a broad research portfolio that includes estimating the amount of carbon our forests and other land regions are absorbing, exploring how Southern Ocean carbon uptake is changing, and investigating how much ocean acidification has already impacted the New Zealand region… and how much it may impact our region in the future.  My work changes a lot from day to day, but here are five things I do almost every day:   

  1. Write and run computer programmes that model the atmosphere or ocean or analyse atmospheric or oceanic data with statistical methods.   
  2. Create beautiful and complex graphics to help visualise and understand model simulations and data. 
  3. Write an email to a colleague living overseas to discuss a research idea or project. 
  4. Have a stimulating discussion with people from at least four different countries, right here at NIWA in Wellington.
  5. Drink an alarming amount of coffee. 

Why is studying coastal acidification important?

Ocean acidification is likely to impact all ocean habitats, but coastal regions are especially vulnerable because runoff from land regions can exacerbate acidification.  While we are impacting coastal areas with carbon dioxide emissions and land management practices, coastal ecosystems are among the ocean ecosystems that impact us the most directly.  These regions are home to many commercial fisheries and species of ecological or cultural significance to New Zealand. 

What study did you do at high school? And after high school?

In high school, I loved art, creative writing, literature, and arguing about politics with my friends.  I always did well in maths and science, and took the most advanced courses offered at my school, but I imagined that I would end up as a novelist or artist.  It wasn’t until I took my first science courses at university that I discovered a real passion for science.  By the end of my first year at university, I had decided to major in Chemistry, a decision I’ve never regretted.   

What outcomes from CARIM do you think there will be?

For the first time, we will have a clear picture of how variable pH is in coastal waters around New Zealand and how quickly acidification is occurring in our coastal waters.  Then, we will come together as a research community to understand what that means for marine species that are ecologically, economically, and culturally important to New Zealand.    

What excites you about working on this project?

I’m excited about the opportuntity to work on an interdisciplinary team with some of the best scientists in New Zealand to tackle a major threat to coastal ecosystems.