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Visiting Cathedral Peak - a landmark observation site for global change

By Sue J. van Rensburg, Coordinator, SAEON Grassland Forest Wetland Node


SAEON's Grassland Forest Wetland Node in Pietermaritzburg hosted the National Research Foundation (NRF) board and executive on a field visit to the Cathedral Peak hydrological observation system following a board meeting in March.


Members of the NRF board and executive, lecturers, students, SAEON staff and interns and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife representatives gather at the top of Mike’s Pass (Picture: Sue J. van Rensburg)

Despite rainy conditions, staff members of the node were able to take the group up Mike’s Pass in 4x4 vehicles, an adventurous but scenic undertaking in wet conditions. Cathedral Peak, Bell and Outer Horn were obscured by the mist but crystal clear streams, silvery waterfalls and glossy greenery were in abundance.

Array of observation instruments

The group gathered at the top of Mike's Pass where Professor Tim O’Connor, SAEON’s Observation Science Specialist, set the scene and explained the rationale behind the upper catchment programme. Moving to the weather station site, Matthew Becker, hydrologist and instrument technician for the node, explained the SAEON instrument platform which currently encompasses a replicated array of rain gauges across the catchments on the sites of the historic array, stream-flow instruments measuring water level in four focus weirs, the eddy covariance system in catchment six that measures carbon energy and water flux as well as albedo, the Mike’s Pass fully automated weather station that records rain, wind direction, wind speed, air temperature, radiation and relative humidity, as well as a recently installed fog collector.


Dr Gansen Pillay, a member of the NRF executive, inspects the fully automated weather station (Picture: Monique Nunes)

Also on site were two recently purchased ISCO automatic water samplers (purchased with Strategic Research Infrastructure funding through the NRF) that will soon be installed to collect water samples automatically in response to rainfall and stream-flow events. This equipment enables projects on water balance isotope studies, sediment load and atmospheric nitrogen and sulphur deposition studies.

Student research projects and collaborations

Collaborator Michele Warburton of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN’s) Centre for Water Resources Research (CWRR) explained how the fog collector and other instrument sets are being used by the Hydrology Honours and various MSc students in their research projects. She explained the aims of the broader collaboration between the Water Research Commission funded joint project between SAEON-CWRR looking at climate and stream-flow change over time, highlighting the value of continuing the long-term record for the catchments in change detection science.

The Cathedral Peak site offers enormous potential for an integrated global change observation platform, that is of significant relevance for society as well as for developing a new generation of scientists that learn to work collaboratively within this context.

Dr Pauline Chivenge of UKZN's School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences and students Humbelani Themba (MSc) and Elkhtab Abdalla (PhD) explained how their work on soils and carbon dynamics, across soils and water, fits into the broader programme. Representatives from the node’s host organisation, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, also participated by providing a management context to the logistical demands of managing the research catchments, highlighting their continued commitment to ensuring the success of the programme.

Understanding biodiversity shifts

The node’s botanist and ecology technician Paul Gordijn and taxonomist intern Sinethemba Ntshangase then reminded the group that the work in the catchments is not just about hydrology and climate, but also understanding biodiversity shifts and how these may interact with hydrological processes, carbon cycling and biological feedbacks into earth system processes. They demonstrated how they have been going about redoing the Tomlinson vegetation survey first conducted in the 1970s, highlighting novel technology and efficient data collection methods being used in the field.


Board members orientate themselves using the replicate mini mole of the catchments (Picture: Monique Nunes)

Towards a common vision for the catchments

Sue Janse van Rensburg, Coordinator of the Grassland Forest Wetland Node, stepped in for collaborators and students who were unable to join in field to explain the various components of their work and how they were making use of and building on the observation platform SAEON is providing. This enabled the board to see the range of topics being developed centred on the SAEON platform. The representation of the entire group spoke volumes for the concerted effort by all stakeholders towards a common vision for the catchments.

Relevance of research to society and policy makers

There was plenty of time for informal discussions, questions and mingling, which stimulated interest and discussion over various components of the work. The logistical realities of field work and the relevance of the work to society and policy makers were among the hot topics discussed. A clear message emanating from the day was the opportunity that the SAEON observation platform is providing young scientists to develop their academic careers.

The importance of being able to share the field experience with members of the NRF board cannot be under-estimated. Contact time with the students, collaborators and technicians, allowing the board to hear first-hand what global change observation and research means on the ground, provides a benchmark for understanding both the challenges and opportunities of operations in field.


Student Humbelani Themba (right) explains her MSc work on carbon flows (Picture: Monique Nunes)

The ultimate aim is to reduce uncertainty around regional climate scenarios to enable planning and adaptation. It was emphasised, however, that to achieve this will take time. Return on investments now will be realised several years down the line and into the future. This highlights the need to manage the expectations of funders within the long-term observation context.

Integrated global change observation platform

The trip also served to profile the enormous potential that this site offers for an integrated global change observation platform that is of significant relevance for society as well as for developing a new generation of scientists that learn to work collaboratively within this context. Overall, the visit demonstrated that the array of environmental observation sensors positioned by SAEON is of national and international importance and emerging as a major strategy of the National System of Innovation.

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