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Award-winning scientist joins SAEON to bolster research in arid areas

Helga van der Merwe finds the arid and semi-arid areas of the planet fascinating, in many respects.

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Helga van der Merwe received an NRF Research Career Award Fellowship to assess the impact of climate change, land use and management on vegetation in the arid areas

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Helga has been involved in various ecological studies in arid areas, including Namaqualand (pictured)

She admits to being awed by how plants and animals are adapted to survive under harsh, adverse, arid conditions. For example, the mechanisms plants have evolved to survive another year and to reproduce; and how the various plant species react differently to rainfall, grazing pressure or other disturbances such as ploughing.

"We still understand very little of this wonderful environment," she says. "For every answer to a question, another multitude of questions arise and one is always amazed at how wonderfully it all fits together."

Born and raised in Pretoria, Helga van der Merwe (nee Rösch) began her tertiary studies towards a BSc in Botany and Genetics at the University of Pretoria in 1991. At the end of the three-year degree, she was awarded the Margaretha Mes Memorial Prize for the best woman student in Botany. She completed her BSc (Hons) (cum laude) in 1994 and her MSc (cum laude) in 1995.

In 1997, Helga accepted a position as botanist at the then Northern Cape Nature Conservation and moved to Calvinia. In 2006, the enthusiastic young researcher enrolled for a part-time PhD, which she completed in 2010. Following this milestone, she was invited to join the Golden Key Honour Society, whose membership is by invitation only and is granted to the top 15% of academic achievers in their field of study.

Since 1993 Helga has been working in the arid and semi-arid areas of South Africa. She initially conducted research on the competitive interactions between Namaqualand annual species and was involved in various ecological studies in Namaqualand and the Kalahari regions. Later, as Senior Nature Conservation Scientist, she was responsible for all botanical aspects of the western half of the Northern Cape Province.

Following a successful project application to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund in 2004, she received funding to conduct research for four years in the Hantam, Tanqua and Roggeveld areas. These studies later evolved into a PhD thesis which included a vegetation map covering approximately three million hectares, as well as biodiversity comparisons across the three areas and across the world. Since then, Helga has been able to conduct additional research/investigations in Bushmanland and other Nama Karoo areas as well as the Succulent Karoo and Savannah areas.

"The arid areas are already stressed and how they react to natural variation, land use and management practices all paints part of the picture of how they will react in the event of climate change."  - Helga van der Merwe

Extensive knowledge base

While completing her tertiary studies and later working and re-registering to continue her studies, she built up an extensive knowledge base on the arid areas of South Africa. Helga has published numerous scientific and popular articles on studies conducted in the arid regions of South Africa. Additionally, she published a field guide on the Wildflowers of the Roggeveld and Tanqua and has compiled, or assisted in, the compilation of numerous botanical/ecological/biodiversity specialist reports as part of vegetation surveys and environmental impact assessments in the semi-arid areas of South Africa.

In April this year, Helga was granted a Research Career Award Fellowship by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and has accordingly been appointed as a scientist in the SAEON Arid Lands Node. Her project is titled: Assessing the impact of climate change, land use and management on vegetation in the arid areas using pre-existing data and expanding monitoring.

Project objectives include:

  • continued monitoring of active long-term monitoring projects, collating and analysing data, publishing scientific manuscripts;
  • re-instating abandoned or intermittently sampled long-term monitoring projects, collating and analysing data, publishing manuscripts;
  • compiling a database of once-off surveys conducted in the Succulent Karoo, Nama Karoo and Kalahari regions and investigating which merit follow-up surveys;
  • designing and initiating new long-term monitoring projects to investigate changes in vegetation across gradients;
  • mentoring SAEON Arid Node technicians;
  • building new and re-enforcing existing partnerships between SAEON and other scientists active in the study areas; and
  • identifying smaller projects within the larger project in which postgraduate students can be involved and supervised.

An adaptive monitoring approach will be used, which enables monitoring programmes to evolve iteratively as new information emerges and research questions change.

A key component of this proposal is the early detection of pattern and rate of directional change using pre-existing datasets rather than establishing a host of new monitoring efforts. An added advantage of using existing data sets, is that publications can be produced fairly quickly and at minimal expense.

Contribution to long-term monitoring

On a personal level, Helga feels that by joining SAEON she will be able to make a significant contribution to long-term monitoring on a South African scale. She describes the opportunity to work with colleagues valuing long-term research as "most exciting and full of potential".

Joining the Arid Lands Node is particularly important to her since the arid lands are where her heart lies. "These areas are already stressed and how they react to natural variation, land use and management practices all paints part of the picture of how they will react in the event of climate change," she says.

"Though Helga has set herself an enormous task with the sizable chunk of research responsibilities that she has taken on, she is well qualified to meet this challenge and brings a significant sparkle to the SAEON Arid Lands Node," says Node Manager Dr Joh Henschel.

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