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SAEON launches Karoo Shale Gas Ecology Project

By Simon Todd and Joh Henschel, SAEON Arid Lands Node
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The project will develop a baseline of the Karoo environment, ecosystem structure and function with an eye to predicting sensitive species and habitats likely to be most vulnerable to shale gas development impacts

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SAEON scientists anticipate that they will use conservation areas and protected environments such as the SKA to develop control and benchmarks sites

With the prospect of shale gas development looming across large parts of the country, the potential environmental costs are high on many people’s mind, with all manner of environmental disaster being associated with ‘fracking’.

Ultimately, the controversy around shale gas development stems from the extremely rapid growth of the industry, which has outpaced both research and legislation across the world. As a result, shale gas development impacts are not well known, with well-researched studies only starting to emerge now.

Urgent research is required

Our current poor understanding limits our ability to manage shale gas impacts effectively, or even predict what these are likely to be, and urgent research into the impacts of shale gas development on the Karoo is required. In South Africa we are fortunate to have an opportunity to establish a research and monitoring programme for shale gas impacts before development commences in order to address these needs.

With this in mind, SAEON has launched the Karoo Shale Gas Ecology Project out of the Arid Lands Node, with seed funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF). The timing of this has been ideal as the project has been able to link up with a number of other initiatives currently happening in the Karoo, including the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for Shale Gas Development.

SAEON’s Karoo Shale Gas Ecology Project will be participating with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) on the SEA, providing a variety of inputs for the process including training and vegetation mapping. The project will also be operating independently, developing a baseline of the Karoo environment, ecosystem structure, function and process with an eye to predicting sensitive receiving habitats and species likely to be most vulnerable to shale gas development impacts.

Long-term monitoring protocol

Ultimately the project aims to develop a long-term monitoring protocol for shale gas impacts that can be rolled out across the Karoo as the zones where wells will be developed become clear. We anticipate that we will also be using conservation areas and protected environments such as the SKA to develop control and benchmarks sites.

Although the monitoring sites will be aimed at assessing shale gas development impacts, this will involve a lot of baseline data collection, which will help address the paucity of biological data collection prevalent across most of the Karoo, as well as address many other potential questions.

Meet SAEON’s new arid ecosystems ecologist, Simon Todd

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Simon has 18 years of experience in arid ecosystems ecology, much of it spent at SANBI and the University of Cape Town, and more recently as an independent ecological consultant, before joining SAEON in May this year.

His main area of interest lies, broadly speaking, in the ecological impacts of land use on biodiversity within the arid zone of South Africa. Projects that he has been involved in include the National Audit of Land Degradation in South Africa and the Conservation Farming Project, both hosted by SANBI, and more recently the Wind and Solar SEA as well as the Eskom Grid Infrastructure SEA managed by the CSIR.

At SAEON, Simon will be managing the Shale Gas Ecology Project as well as maintaining his interests in the ecological impacts of land use in the arid zone as a SAEON scientist.

About his new position Simon had this to say: "My move to SAEON was a natural one for me as long-term monitoring has been a feature of my work going back as far as my MSc, with the permanent plots I set up in 1996 approaching their 20-year anniversary. When the position at SAEON on the shale gas project came up, I recognised how much this opportunity matched my skills and interests and I couldn’t let it pass. I hope to make a real difference in the way shale gas development occurs in South Africa and I’m thrilled to be able to do this as part of the SAEON Arid Lands Node."

 

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