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Celebrating 30 years of research and observation in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica: South Africa’s contribution to the global climate debate

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SAEON's Dr Lara Atkinson and Thomas Mtontsi participated in an exciting pre-COP17 cruise on board the research vessel SA Agulhas  (Picture: Mthuthuzeli Gulekana)

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The CSIR conducted a demonstration of deploying the conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) gear through the water column in the fast-flowing Agulhas current, collecting water samples at different depths and demonstrating how calibrations are done (Picture: Lara Atkinson)

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SAEON’s Education Programme contributed to a successful event in Port Elizabeth during the pre-COP17 voyage initiative. Here Thomas Mtontsi, Education Officer of SAEON’s Egagasini Node, addresses learners and educators from Enqileni Intermediate School (Picture: Mbongeni Tyesi)

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The Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, joined the passengers for breakfast in Durban. SAEON’s Thomas Mtontsi (left) was seated next to the Deputy Minister (Picture: Mtshutshu Tsawaini)

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The SA Agulhas was built in 1977 and has conducted as many as 157 voyages, most of which have been into the treacherous waters of the Southern Ocean en route to Marion and Gough Islands and South Africa’s research station in Antarctic. At 111 m in length and 18 m wide, she is our largest research vessel. Over the past 33 years many a marine scientist has had the privilege to call her ‘home’ for a few weeks or months. But sadly, soon the SA Agulhas will no longer be certified as an ice-breaker (all ice-breaking vessels have limited life spans due to safety considerations when navigating through icy oceans – think of the Titanic!) and the South African voyages into the Southern Ocean will be conducted by a new ice-breaker vessel, currently under construction.

- Dr Lara Atkinson and Thomas Mtontsi, SAEON Egagasini Node

Climate change is all around us, and even more so in South Africa right now, with the United Nations 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) climate change talks that are being held in Durban this week.

With a view to COP17, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) invited marine academics, scientists and technicians to share their sea-going research experiences with journalists and students so that research being conducted in our oceans can be broadcast to a wider audience. And what better vessel to host this audience than South Africa’s only ice-breaker research vessel, the SA Agulhas?.

Thomas Mtontsi and Lara Atkinson of SAEON’s Egagasini Node were honoured to be invited to present an overview of the role of SAEON in monitoring the effects of climate change in our marine environment aboard the SA Agulhas while sailing on the second leg of this special journey, between Port Elizabeth and Durban harbours, from 14 to 16 November 2011.

The SA Agulhas had already completed her two-day journey from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth when Thomas and Lara joined the team to sail from Port Elizabeth along the Wild Coast to Durban. Before settling in onboard, Thomas participated in an exhibition event held at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University where as many as 120 learners from surrounding schools gathered to hear all about ocean research and the effects of climate change on our oceans.

It was a busy and successful morning for the group. The educators and learners of Seyise Primary, Eagles Homeschooling Group and Al-Azhar Institute took time out from the end of the year examinations to enthusiastically interact with scientist and exhibiters.

The voyage begins

Back onboard the SA Agulhas, checks were made, lists were ticked and by 17h00, with cloudy skies, a slight drizzle and strong wind urging us on our way, she set off out of Algoa Bay. After dinner, Professor Geoff Brundrit from DEA gave the group plenty to think about with his presentation about the manifestation of climate change effects in several African cities and what can be done about it.

With a view to COP17, the Department of Environmental Affairs invited marine academics, scientists and technicians to share their sea-going research experiences with journalists and students so that research being conducted in our oceans can be broadcast to a wider audience.

Professor Brundrit presented case studies that have made headline news around the world during 2011 where some African cites have been flooded, causing large-scale destruction to humans and infrastructure as a result of rising sea levels and an increase of extreme weather events, such as Lagos in Nigeria and Alexandria in Egypt. Closer to home, he pointed out that several low-lying regions in South Africa where dense coastal development has occurred are increasingly being severely affected by storms and flooding, these mostly being the KwaZulu-Natal coast and some parts of the Southern Cape Eden district.

Three response options or combinations are usually considered -- Protect (whereby hard or soft structures are built to protect against the effects of storms), Retreat (whereby buildings are moved beyond the impact zone) or Adapt (whereby structures are adapted to be able to withstand the impacts of storms).

Day 2 dawns bright and sunny

The gentle rocking motion of the ship ensured a good night’s rest for its passengers and the deep blue waters and bright sunshine that greeted us the next morning seemed to heighten the enthusiasm onboard. Just after breakfast the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) conducted a demonstration of deploying the conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) gear through the water column in the fast-flowing Agulhas current, collecting water samples at different depths and demonstrating how calibrations are done.

Lieze Swart and Darryll Anders, two technicians from the DEA Biodiversity and Oceans group, then explained how the effects of a changing climate in the oceans are impacting on higher biotic groups such as penguins and turtles. The optimal food source of penguins is anchovy and with the shifting of anchovy populations towards the east, the penguins have struggled to obtain sufficiently nutritious food to ensure successful breeding. Penguin populations on the west coast have been declining over the past 10 years with some locations no longer supporting breeding colonies (e.g. Lamberts Bay). Research on turtles in South Africa has been conducted for nearly 50 years, offering a good long-term data set to explore effects due to changing climate conditions.

Santjie du Toit from the South African Weather Service (SAWS) explained that one of the responsibilities of SAWS is to provide advance weather information to ensure the safety of life at sea according to the Safety of Life at Sea Act. SAWS regularly deploy drifting weather buoys to collect information about conditions at sea and assimilate information from a wide variety of sources to provide the public with weather forecasts. SAWS have also developed a Storm Surge Weather Warning System, whereby various environmental factors are taken into account. Using careful calculations, they are able to provide advance warning of possible coastal damage as a result of extreme weather conditions. A drifting weather buoy was released as part of the demonstrations during the voyage.

The SAEON factor

Dr Angus Paterson, Managing Director of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), presented an overview of the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP), focussing on the programme’s second phase, ACEPII. A diverse range of projects are supported by ACEPII, ranging from paleoclimatology, biodiversity and genetics to education and capacity building. A comprehensive report of the projects ACEP supports can be downloaded from their website.

Lara then provided an overview of SAEON and its activities and highlighted some of the projects SAEON has initiated. She also explained how these projects will provide valuable long-term data to help detect, predict and react to changes in the marine environment. James Stapely provided an overview of the Agulhas-Somali-Current-Large-Marine-Ecosystem Programme (ASCLME) and highlighted the links between the different organisations and programmes that are underway, focussing on research in the West Indian Ocean.

As the sun was setting over the Transkei coast and the first high density of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) city lights began to appear on the horizon, Alan Aldrin Meyer from the CSIR presented an overview of oceanographic patterns around Southern Africa and explained why our ocean currents are so important in driving global climate. Alan pointed out that the currently observed changes in ocean current patterns may lead to increased frequencies of subtropical cyclones originating from the Indo-Pacific region making landfall along the KZN coastline. These tropical cyclones have resulted in severe coastal flooding and destruction along the KZN coast in recent years.

Day 3 … breakfast with the Deputy Minister

The air was warm and humid with the early Durban sun already shining brightly as we emerged from our cabins in time to witness our arrival in Durban harbour at 06h00 on Wednesday morning. The excitement in the air was heightened by the fact that the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, Rejoice Mabudafhasi , was waiting on the quay side to join us aboard the SA Agulhas for breakfast... and what a spread it was!

The Deputy Minister was very interested in the various activities that had taken place aboard the SA Agulhus over the past few days and shared stories of her adventures aboard the vessel when she joined one of the voyages to the Antarctic several years ago. Everyone enjoyed the buzz and excitement and of course, the breakfast.

All too soon it was time to find transport to our next destinations. With one last glance back at the majestic red and white SA Agulhas, we were on our way again to continue with our various research and outreach projects, even more inspired by all the information shared over the past few days to do the best we can in our respective fields.

Thomas headed off to uShaka Marine World to set up exhibit-style interactions with learners and educators. The education staff made full use of the opportunity and brought as many as 150 learners to participate in the event.

Magic Planet

The Magic Planet once again was a highlight for learners as well as the uShaka Marine World staff. Three presentations were delivered to the learners, 1) A global view on climate change presented by Professor Geoff Brundit (DEA); 2) a local view on climate change, presented by Mthuthuzeli Gulekana (DEA); and 3) the importance of Marine Science Education -- developing the next generation of scientists, presented by Thomas Mtontsi (SAEON).

The Deputy Director General of DEA, Dr Monde Mayekiso, requested that Thomas demonstrate the facilities of the Magic Planet to the DEA Director General (DG), Ms Nosipho Ngcaba, who briefly visited the exhibit at UShaka Marine World.

“Is COP17 relevant to Africa?”

The final event in which SAEON participated was a debate co-ordinated by the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) with the topic “Is COP17 relevant to Africa?” Dr Neville Sweijd, ACCESS Operations Manager led the arguments for the motion that COP17 is irrelevant to Africa whilst Professor Geoff Brundrit (DEA) argued against this motion.

The SA Agulhas set sail back to Cape Town on Friday 18th November to arrive on Monday the 21st November 2011.

The voyage allowed us to share some of our knowledge with a different audience, learn from others and make new contacts for future joint explorations. Thomas and Lara from SAEON Egagasini gratefully appreciate the opportunity to participate in this pre-COP17 voyage aboard the SA Agulhas and wish to thank the Department of Environmental Affairs, our host organisation, for coordinating and facilitating this unique event.

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