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Into the melting pot

By Sue J. van Rensburg, Coordinator, SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node
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Tiffany Aldworth’s fog gauge at 3 000 m


Nobuhle Mweli presents her Honours project


Siphiwe Mfeka, the Node’s Development Post Technician, stands ready to welcome delegates to the symposium

What do you get when you put a bunch of scientist from different disciplines together in a room for two days?

A platform for great science, according to the scientists.

SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node has been revitalising the historic Cathedral Peak Research Catchments since 2011. In doing so, SAEON is not only reinstating and extending historic monitoring efforts, but is also adding an array of additional parameters, both physical and biological.

Living laboratory

The aim is to provide an integrated platform for global change science. Crucially, this platform provides a living laboratory for a new generation of scientists to develop their research skills, while also being exposed to multiple disciplines. Providing an opportunity for young minds to talk across traditional silos to develop ways of integrating their research is a key aim of the platform.

Outcomes generated from this approach are likely to be more valuable and a truer refection of the system processes taking place. By pooling knowledge from different components of the system (such as soils, hydrology, vegetation and earth system processes), integrated models of both current functioning and potential future scenarios can be developed.

The platform has been generating considerable interest from an array of collaborator groups. In 2013 all interested parties were invited to attend a mini symposium on the work being undertaken and planned for the platform. The request from stakeholders at the time was to hold the event every two years, so this year invitations were sent out again.

In 2013 there were 39 participants and one day of presentations. This year the response was so good that the symposium had to be extended from one day to two. Fifty-eight people attended the 2015 event, with 26 presentations and a number of discussion sessions. This reflects the growth in interest and collaborator projects making use of the platform and the value of the science being generated from it.

Adding spice to the melting pot

Participants were a vibrant mix - from young students to mid-career and more "experienced" scientists as well as land custodians and government officials. Themes included vegetation dynamics, remote sensing, soils, climate, community engagement, climate mitigation, hydrology, citizen science, genetics, microbes, carbon impacts, resource economics and integrative modelling.

What added further value is that participants came from a wide range of institutions representing conservation agencies, academic institutions, NGOs, government departments (Science and Technology and Environmental Affairs) as well as from other nodes within SAEON. The University of KwaZulu-Natal topped the attendance charts (see Figure 1). There was even representation from the international science community.

"It was incredibly useful for the Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node to have representation from SAEON research associates and node scientists from elsewhere in the country," says Sue J. van Rensburg, Coordinator of the Node. "This meant that discussions could focus on closer coordination within SAEON as well as learning from the products being produced across SAEON, with inputs from the stakeholder group."

SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node has been revitalising the historic Cathedral Peak Research Catchments to provide an integrated platform for global change science.

How good does it taste?

"At the Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node we believe that feedback from stakeholders is vital to ensuring relevance, so we solicited input from participants in the form of a feedback form," explains Sue.

From this there was a general consensus that the approach of using the platform to stimulate integration across disciples is a major drawcard which should be continued and strengthened. It was said that the node needed to work harder at getting its data systems up to scratch and user friendly ("We agree and we are working on this," comments Sue).

The way in which the platform is being used as an opportunity for student learning was commended. There were repeated calls for further expanding the opportunities for student engagement, providing projects and enhancing the integration among the student group.


Figure 1. Pie chart showing participation of various institutions


Figure 2. Range of atlases citizen scientists can contribute to

You too can be involved: Science engagement through citizen science

A number of citizen science programmes were identified over the two days. These are important to profile as they speak to the National Research Foundation (NRF) objective of science engagement.

Dr Alan Manson, a scientist at the KZN Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, gave an overview of the various atlases citizen scientists can contribute to. These include atlases for dragonflies, birds, frogs, trees, to name but a few (see Figure 2). You don’t need to be an expert; you just need to take good photos with a GPS location! Visit

While these are not SAEON projects, their outputs benefit the platform and those interested are encouraged to contribute.

For the budding photographers who enjoy history, Prof. Timm Hoffman from the University of Cape Town has collected a brilliant set of historic photographs, many of which are in the Drakensberg. Citizen scientists can contribute to studies on vegetation and landscape change by taking repeat photographs of these and submitting them to the site. Just click on the links and all will be explained.

This database of old photographs has already enabled two student projects linked to the SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node, using repeat photography to understand vegetation dynamics within the Drakensberg. One of these was presented at the symposium (see Figure 3). If you have old (pre-1980s) landscape photos or slides that would be valuable to include in the database, please contact us .

A new generation to lead the way

Probably the most encouraging part of the symposium was the number of student presentations centered on the Cathedral Peak platform. In just a few short years a student body has started to emerge, some of whom first visited the platform for their third-year field trip, went on to do an Honours degree and are now in the final stages of their Master’s projects.

"This trend needs to continue and the Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node is committed to working harder to create more opportunities for new graduates across universities," says Sue. "The students themselves have started communicating with each other across departments and institutions. At this early stage in their careers they are able to develop networks and to start harnessing the opportunities for good science that collaboration provides. I suspect that these students and the ones to follow may lead the way for the more experienced scientists in stimulating integration across the traditional silos."


MSc student Feroza Morris installs rain gauges at the start of her project with help from SAEON interns and UKZN staff

Star ingredients

The student projects presented at the symposium are too many to mention, but just as a taste: For her MSc,Tiffany Aldworth is attempting to determine the contribution of fog to the water balance using data from the Mikes Pass weather station, the catchment six station as well as the SAEON high-altitude station.

Feroza Morris is investigating the relationship between rainfall and topography for her MSc. She is also making a vital contribution towards infilling missing data when monitoring stopped before being revitalised by SAEON. Nobuhle Mweli gave a thought-provoking presentation on her Honours project looking at the influence of histories of livestock grazing on the plant diversity of Drakensberg grasslands.

Thank you

"Our sincere thanks to all the students and participants who made this symposium such a success," says Sue. "Our job is to create the platform so that you can create the magic … and everyone delivered on that!"

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