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SAEON’s role in the South African Research Infrastructure Strategy

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SAEON has resuscitated the upper catchment monitoring system at Jonkershoek, where a high-altitude weather station has been placed and the array of weirs has been cleaned, repaired and fitted with instruments to measure streamflow.

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SAEON's monitoring programme at St Lucia monitors groundwater levels in an array of boreholes, as well as the water of the lake itself.

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SAEON has invested in two floats that were deployed in the Southern Ocean as South Africa’s first contribution to the international Argo array, taking oceanographic measurements as deep as 2 km under the surface.

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SAEON’s instrumented arrays are complemented by a range of monitoring programmes, including benchmark studies in marine protected areas.

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"The value of SAEON’s environmental monitoring arrays is strategic in that they are installed and maintained at key locations by an organisation with a national mandate to do so for the long term." - Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

SAEON has a niche role to play in the Earth and environmental sciences theme of the emerging national Research Infrastructure Strategy.

The data that are produced via instruments installed and maintained by SAEON are shared with the research community. The research community has virtual access to SAEON-generated data through the SAEON data portal and the South African Earth Observation System of Systems (SAEOSS), a system that provides access to more than 1 000 South African datasets.

Data sharing is a principle of SAEON; and the development of interoperable data systems connecting dispersed data sets via the Internet is a distinctive competency of SAEON.

A constellation of observation sites

SAEON started off by establishing distributed nodes and growing a constellation of observation sites on the basis of research questions that need to be answered by long-term monitoring programmes at those sites. By far the majority of those sites were not permanently instrumented.

One exception was the array of underwater instruments in Algoa Bay, measuring the physical dynamics of the bay. Today, this array totals some 80 instruments and forms a platform for research by universities and research institutes. The array stretches as far as off the coast from Thys se Punt, where a nuclear reactor is planned and the instruments will provide crucial baseline environmental data, as well as data over the lifetime of the reactor.

SAEON’s expertise in running such a coastal array can now be replicated at suitable sites.

An array of monitoring systems

In the meantime, SAEON has resuscitated the upper catchment monitoring systems at Jonkershoek (Stellenbosch) and Cathedral Peak (Drakensberg), where high-altitude weather stations have been placed and the arrays of weirs have been cleaned, repaired and fitted with instruments to measure streamflow.

These observation platforms have already served as student research projects and will continue to do so. Data have been gathered at Jonkershoek nearly uninterrupted for the past 70 years and once analysed in more detail, will produce unique information about changing climatic patterns and the consequences for our water sources.

Recently SAEON started a monitoring programme at St Lucia (KwaZulu-Natal) where, among other things, we are monitoring groundwater levels in an array of boreholes and are also beginning to monitor the water of the lake itself.

SAEON has also invested in two floats that were deployed in the Southern Ocean as South Africa’s first contribution to the international Argo array, taking oceanographic measurements as deep as 2 km under the surface.

A range of monitoring programmes

SAEON’s instrumented arrays are complemented by a range of monitoring programmes, including transects such as the Olifants and !Gariep (previously called Orange) rivers, marine biodiversity surveys on the West Coast and the PetroSA pipeline at Vleesbaai; experimental designs such as the grazing trials at Grootfontein (Middelburg, Northern Cape), the Letaba exclosure in the Kruger National Park and plant succession monitoring at the former Vaalbos National Park; benchmark studies in marine protected areas and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve; and participation in several international research programmes such as the African Coelacanth Ecosystems Programme (ACEP), the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER), the Southern African Data Centre for Oceanography (SADCO) and GEOBON.

Strategic national value

It speaks for itself that the value of SAEON’s environmental monitoring arrays is strategic in that they are installed and maintained at key locations by an organisation with a national mandate to do so for the long term. In the mode of the National Facilities of the NRF, these arrays are serving as research and education platforms for the wider research community, delivering multi-disciplinary data that are archived and accessible for current and future research programmes.

The immense taxonomic and systems biodiversity in South Africa offers fascinating and far-reaching research opportunities. We are gradually establishing world-class laboratories for long-term research on our complex ecological systems as impacted by global change.

International convergence

Although SAEON was established quite some time before the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) of the USA, and on a smaller budget by orders of magnitude, the basic concepts of these two networks are completely aligned, and require the strategic roll-out and maintenance of large arrays of instruments.

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