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Fusion Forum zooms in on environmental problems facing arid and semi-arid regions

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Arid Lands Node Field Technician Tshililo Ramaswiela showcased the newly established observation project on Compassberg in the Eastern Cape

By the SAEON Arid Lands team

In September 2014, the Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) and Thicket Forum jointly convened a Fusion Forum at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

This year’s event was probably the largest ever for both, with 135 people attending. Attendees represented a range of organisations and a wide variety of ecological research backgrounds. Several universities, research institutions, government departments, municipalities, consultants and the media were represented.

Delegates travelled from as far afield as the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in Namibia and the Future Okavango Project in Botswana. Thirty nine delegates were students, of whom six won closely-contested prizes for oral and poster presentations. Ten learners, accompanied by an educator, joined the conference for one day and participated in a field trip to a research site near Grahamstown.

Valuable platform for networking

The forum provided a valuable platform for networking and communicating across different research fields. These included Ecosystem Drivers, Biome Determinants, Long-Term Monitoring, Stewardship and Restoration. Additionally, the joint conference was a rare opportunity for researchers and practitioners working in the arid zone and the Thicket Biome to interact and exchange ideas. Many delegates commented that this was a particularly valuable experience.

Both the SAEON Arid Lands Node and AZEF were initiated to address the environmental problems facing the arid and semi-arid regions in southern Africa. The Arid Lands Node is tasked with monitoring change in the arid region of South Africa and AZEF provides a valuable opportunity for local and visiting scientists to share results and experience covering a wide array of subjects, including management issues.

The programme comprised 45 presentations over three days including two keynote presentations. It kicked off with a keynote address by Professor William Bond, SAEON’s Chief Scientist, who gave a very insightful presentation entitled “Why are arid zone ecosystems so different in Africa vs South America and Australia?”

Prof. Bond elucidated processes that likely influence or shape vegetation types across the three southern continents and attempted to explain similarities and differences. The study indicated that the reduction of mega-herbivore populations, differences in fire regime, atmospheric CO2 and climate change are the likely drivers of these differences.

Later in the programme, Dr Joh Henschel, Manager of SAEON’s Arid Lands Node, gave a talk on unconventional gas mining (fracking) in the Karoo under the theme “Emerging Threats in the Arid Zone”. His presentation outlined SAEON’s plans to monitor likely impacts of fracking on Karoo natural capital.

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An entire session of the forum was devoted to the Tierberg LTER

Spotlight on Tierberg LTER

An entire session was devoted to the Tierberg LTER, chaired by Dr Henschel. It included a presentation on Tierberg’s history, achievements and opportunities by SAEON Research Associates Prof. Sue Milton and Dr Richard Dean.

This was followed by a presentation by Marco Pauw, SAEON Arid Lands Node Technician, reviewing 2014 survey data collected on vegetation cover differences between exclosures and enclosures across different historical and current land uses. A concluding presentation by Dr Helga van der Merwe, SAEON Arid Lands Node Scientist, “Building on the Tierberg Legacy”, highlighted SAEON’s investment in observation science at Tierberg and expected future returns on its investment. Additionally, the concern was raised of large-scale developments (potentially) taking place in the Karoo at large. Potential threats include large-scale mining, solar and wind farms, as well as fracking.

The Tierberg session ended with a prolonged discussion on possible future directions of research at Tierberg and the Karoo at large. Delegates came up with a host of relevant and important topics, including the effects of historic land use; farming practices on carbon levels; seed dispersal; changes in migratory mega-herds such as springbok, locusts and nomadic birds; shifts over time in flora and fauna across biomes; and apparent increase in grass cover.

Delegates also highlighted Tierberg’s excellent publication record and discussed how publications for the rest of the arid region should be increased. They deliberated on extrapolating findings from the 100-ha Tierberg-LTER site to surrounding farmland, and building on good relationships with farmers in the vicinity of Tierberg as a prime example for SAEON nationwide.

Poster display

The forum also hosted a poster display, where students and scientists presented posters on proposed projects and findings from their respective on-going projects. Liesel Hein, SAEON Arid Lands Node intern, presented a fascinating poster on responses by three Karoo plant species to municipal effluent water, which causes increased moisture and nutrient loading at the Wolwekraal Nature Reserve.

SAEON’s second poster by Tshililo Ramaswiela showcased the newly established observation project on Compassberg in the Eastern Cape, which monitors potential altitudinal shifts in vegetation, particularly C3 and C4 grass species, in view of climate change. Dr Henschel presented a poster on his Namibian research together with collaborators concerning the root system of the Welwitschia, which obtains moisture from multiple sources, relying mostly on moisture of unknown origin located at 1-2 m depth, far above groundwater.

Addressing environmental problems facing the arid regions

Both the SAEON Arid Lands Node and AZEF were initiated to address the environmental problems facing the arid and semi-arid regions in southern Africa. The Arid Lands Node is tasked with monitoring change in the arid region of South Africa and AZEF provides a valuable opportunity for local and visiting scientists to share results and experience covering a wide array of subjects, including management issues.

In recent years, SAEON’s partnership with AZEF increasingly entailed showcasing its research projects and co-funding forum events and two student prizes. The SAEON prize for the best oral presentation related to long-term monitoring was won by Justin du Toit (University of KwaZulu-Natal) for his excellent presentation entitled “Resilience of Karoo veld – post-treatment changes after 40 years”. Megan Simons’ (University of the Western Cape) winning poster was “Post-fire vegetation and soil recovery in Mountain Renosterveld in Namaqualand, South Africa”.

During the AZEF Annual General Meeting, two staff members of the Arid Lands Node were elected to the AZEF Committee - Marco Pauw is the new vice-chair and Liesel Hein the treasurer. Dr Henschel proposed that Prince Albert be considered as a venue for AZEF in 2016 to commemorate 30 years since the start of the Tierberg Karoo Research Centre (now known as Tierberg LTER). This suggestion was well received and the motion passed.

In future, SAEON is looking to continue its contribution to AZEF through participation, funding and committee membership, as it recognises AZEF as a dynamic, relevant and interactive platform, bringing people and science together.

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