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The DST's strategic role in providing crucial ecological data for science and society

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The growing amount of scientific instrumentation is turning the Cathedral Peak research site into an LTER site of note (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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Monitoring of stream flow and climate has resumed and holds the promise of offering science and society crucial data on how global climate change is affecting water production (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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Prof. Yonah Seleti and Mr Leluma Matooane commented positively on the interactions between Sue and her two DST/NRF interns, Nasiphi Ntshanga and Sinethemba Ntshangase, both of whom are fully engaged in SAEON's outdoors research work and aiming for higher degrees (Picture: Johan Pauw)

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of accompanying Prof. Yonah Seleti and Mr Leluma Matooane to the Cathedral Peak research area of the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Prof. Seleti is the Chief Director: Science Missions and Mr Matooane the Director: Earth Systems Science of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

For this visit they had to breach their usual formal dress code by "dressing down" to SAEON standards - jeans, jackets, caps and boots.

We were hosted by Ms Sue van Rensburg, the Coordinator of SAEON's Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node (GFW) and her staff. On the way there and after the heavy rains of the night before, we were driving along the Mhlambonja and Mhlawazini rivers and could observe a patent example of clean water as an ecosystem service since the river water turned from muddy in the largely disturbed inhabited area to clear in the high-altitude conservation area, which is under management of KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife.

Historical datasets

Supply of fresh water by the upper catchment at Cathedral Peak is progressively monitored by Sue and her collaborators. The site is historical and the datasets go back to the 1930s, but, as so often happens with long-term research, the monitoring was discontinued in 1990 because the original objectives had been met. Unfortunately, the importance of the monitoring in the context of global climate change was not realised at the time.

The site was indeed identified by the 1999 National LTER Symposium as one of the main LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research) sites for an LTER network in South Africa. Prof. Tim O'Connor, SAEON's Observation Science Specialist, therefore restated the case for Cathedral Peak in 2010.

Measuring the impact of global change on water production

Since 2012, under SAEON's LTER mandate and Sue's management, the Cathedral Peak LTER site has undergone rapid refurbishment with funding from the DST. Monitoring of stream flow and climate has resumed and holds the promise of offering science and society crucial data on how global climate change is affecting water production. Monitoring climate, soil moisture, vegetation and gaseous fluxes will provide basic data to analyse the impacts of global climate change on biodiversity and nutrient cycling.

The importance of the visit stems from the strategic role of the DST in SAEON's past, present and future. Our distinguished visitors commented that their understanding of SAEON's work and the importance to science and society has been greatly enriched. Their newly acquired insights will certainly precipitate in the DST's decision making about financial and strategic support for SAEON.

Prof. Seleti and Mr Matooane also commented positively on the interactions between Sue and her two DST/NRF interns, Nasiphi Ntshanga and Sinethemba Ntshangase, both of whom are fully engaged in SAEON's outdoors research work and aiming for higher degrees.

An LTER site of note

Cathedral Peak is a national effort worthy of international attention based on the value of its historical data, the growing array of instrumentation and its location in uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The natural splendour of the site is breath-taking and the growing amount of scientific instrumentation is turning it into an LTER site of note.

This is recognised by everyone who has had the privilege to engage in thinking about the site's optimal use for science, implementing the resulting plans or just visiting to be better informed. For visiting researchers there is even limited accommodation available in the foothills of the mountain.

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Prof. Yonah Seleti (with cap) and Mr Leluma Matooane of DST at the site with Ms Sue van Rensburg, Coordinator of SAEON's Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node (centre) and the other enthusiastic members of her team, who are, from left: Zukiswa Ngcemu, Sinethemba Ntshangase and Nasiphi Ntshanga (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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Cathedral Peak is a national effort worthy of international attention based on the value of its historical data, the growing array of instrumentation and its location in uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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