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SAEON's Cathedral Peak monitoring platform: from clipboards to cosmic ray probes


Feroza Morris, an MSc student from UKZN CWRR and also registered with SAEON, tells participants more about her project investigating the relationship between rainfall and altitude


Prof. Roland Schulze provided valuable insights on past work in the Cathedral Peak catchments and reflected on how SAEON should move forward: "Think big, think holistic, think practical, think long term."


Prof. Colin Everson explains some of the research he will be conducting in collaboration with SAEON

By Sue Van Rensburg, Coordinator: SAEON Grasslands, Forests and Wetlands Node

Developing a relevant platform

Vital to the success of creating a meaningful platform for Global Change Research and Monitoring is ensuring that the activities implemented by SAEON are relevant and useful for potential users.

Associated with this, is facilitating networks and exchange among SAEON's collaborators for all to harness the value-adding benefits of building linkages across a diverse array of disciplines.

The Cathedral Peak Research Catchments Monitoring Programme being implemented by SAEON is gaining momentum, with interest from a variety of stakeholder groups representing a rich spectrum of disciplines. With several collaborations already underway, we felt the time was ripe to invite established and emerging stakeholders to participate in an informal mini-symposium centred on this programme.

The intentions were simple:

  • To introduce the different stakeholder groups to each other
  • To provide a setting for experts from different fields to share information about what they are currently doing, or planning to do, in the research catchments
  • To solicit input from stakeholders into SAEON's activities in the catchments (ensuring relevance)
  • To provide students with a capacity-building opportunity to present their work
  • To have some fun chatting about science and potential transdisciplinary synergies

Overwhelming response

The open workshop was attended by 39 participants representing eight institutions (University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of the Free State, University of the Witwatersrand, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, KZN Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Umgeni Water, SAEON) as well as private researchers.

Physical and biological sciences were both well represented with a mix of hydrologists, climatologists, hydro-meteorologists, water chemists, soil scientists and ecologists specialising in vegetation, fire, aquatic and palaeo studies. The day was packed with 16 presentations.

Providing context

SAEON's Observation Science Specialist, Professor Tim O'Connor opened the symposium, explaining SAEON's mandate and detailing the rationale for using Cathedral Peak as a SAEON sentinel site. SAEON's approach has been to develop specific questions around agents of change and potential responses to guide monitoring programmes. Prof. O'Connor highlighted the notion that detecting and understanding change is only as good as one's a priori conception of what might drive that change.

"One isolates a question and finds the best possible context in the field to address it using an appropriate design," he explained.

The primary interest in the Cathedral Peak Catchments is to address the specific question of the impact of climate change on seasonality and flow of water, where these offer both pristine first-order catchments suited to this question, as well as a long-term data record. Importantly, he pointed out that the continuation of "that data [record] offers an opportunity to address a pressing question in the near future … not the distant future".

While the data may enable us to look at functioning at one level, describing patterns, it does not necessarily provide an explanation of those patterns. Prof. O'Connor made the point that scientists pursue an understanding of processes. The role of SAEON is to put in place a monitoring platform that would provide a good foundation for process-level research which is the ambit of academia.

"While we can provide data on functioning we look to partners and collaborators to use the information and build projects to get to the process level ‘stuff'," he said. This notion highlights the complementary nature of the work of SAEON and academic researchers.

The catchments lend themselves to several other discrete questions relating to vegetation dynamics, biodiversity, soil processes, carbon dynamics and fire. Each of these may have stand-alone questions at one level, looking at single questions working towards trying to say something about a specific agent of change on a specific response. When this is done for a number of specific agents and a number of responses, the opportunity for a complex and integrated package that approximates an ecosystem-level study emerges.

Strength in diversity

The subsequent series of presentations described work being done, or planned for the catchments that covered a range of topics reflecting the diversity of the research groups.

The first session covered various hydrological and hydro-meteorological studies already underway in the catchments, with a reflection on past work done in the catchments as well as learning of technologies, some of which will be novel deployments in South Africa, such as the cosmic ray probe, that promise exciting complementary datasets. The combined SAEON instrument array with complementary equipment from stakeholders will enable a detailed, finely scaled and comprehensive span of hydro-meteorological data.

In addition, plans to address impacts of atmospheric sulfur and nitrogen deposition were profiled. Carbon is gaining profile as a resource that needs to be understood and managed, but little is understood regarding the baseline dynamics of carbon in the landscape. Combining the water chemistry and soil sciences, several projects are addressing the carbon issue within the catchments and surrounding areas.

Staying with soils, some exciting baseline sampling conducted in the catchments as an input for digital terrain modelling were presented, with the products that this can yield causing considerable excitement for vegetation ecologists and hydrologist alike.

Several presentations highlighted the value of palaeo data, presenting some intriguing results from the catchments; a clear reminder of the importance of perspective and how looking back can help us to understand and provide context to current and projected patterns. Approaches looking at vegetation dynamics were presented; using historic data compared to current patterns, modelling the impacts of fire and vegetation and the use of a combination of remote sensing and in situ sampling for monitoring of long-term vegetation change dynamics.

We were fortunate to have a mix of experienced academics, with a collective experience of over 100 years of working in the Cathedral Peak catchments, and young scientists starting out their careers. Synergies and opportunities emerged that linked across disciplines.

It was encouraging to note that several new projects presented at the symposium had recently been successful in securing grant funding for proposed work. This would help to catalyse the impact and value of the collective platform being created. From clipboard ecology to remote sensing, palaeo cores to cosmic-ray probes, the collective effort within the catchments is gaining momentum.

However, emphasising the value of the long-term focus of SAEON's monitoring activities, on which these research programmes are building, there was an appeal for a formalised continuity plan to ensure the persistence of SAEON's programme in a fickle funding environment.

Living laboratory

Dr Michelle Warburton from the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Water Resources Research (UKZN CWRR) emphasised the value of the catchments as a living laboratory.

With funding from the Applied Centre for Climate & Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) and the Water Research Commission (WRC), UZKN CWRR are collaborating with SAEON and enabling support for student projects and learning opportunities in the catchments. For two consecutive years now, UKZN hydrology honours classes have spent time in the catchments where the theory learnt in lecture rooms is given meaning.

The symposium was also aimed at giving other students working in the catchments the opportunity to meet and network, but moreover to present their work to the broader groups of scientists. Seven out of the 16 presentation were delivered by students conducting work within the catchments. They were asked to consider how they see themselves within the long-term programme and were encouraged to consider that this site could be an opportunity for each of them to develop their own research programmes into the future.

Take-home message

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Graham Jewitt of UKZN reminded the group that at the beginning of the day they had been asked to start envisioning what this collective platform would look like in 20 years, pointing to Prof. O'Connor's idea of a conceptual framework to guide the programme.

Prof. Jewitt stated: "We have seen quite a number of opportunities for small synergies among the different groups. From each of the presentations today we could see linkages and ways and means to harness these to improve our own models. However, there is a sense there could be something bigger (and the potential for lots of academic papers). The real question moving forward now is how do you forge the bigger links?"

He noted several broad themes emerging over a temporal context and suggested that a model/framework arising from these different themes that operates at a landscape scale would be useful, not only in developing an understanding of the integrated processes, but also as a repository of knowledge.

Prof. Jewitt concluded by saying: "Roland (Schulze) made the point that we need to think big, think long term and think holistically. I think we have a lot of work to do before we get there, but I think this was a wonderful opportunity to kick that off."

Thanks to participants

In conclusion, SAEON would like to thank all the participants who gave generously of their time and knowledge.


The informal mini-symposium was attended by 39 participants representing eight institutions, as well as private researchers.

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