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2014 ILTER Meeting: Exploring Darwin's and Magellan's legacies

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

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At the end of last year, I travelled to Chile to attend the Annual Meeting of the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER), hosted by LTSER-Chile.

ILTER is comprised of member countries, which form regional networks based on shared interests. South Africa has been a member since 2002.

Internationally, all the members have voting rights on the Coordinating Committee, which meets annually for business purposes. The Coordinating Committee elects a chair and subcommittee chairs. The chairs and the regional networks form the Executive Committee, which meets monthly via teleconference.

The business meeting held in Chile was deemed a success and several important decisions were taken. Twenty-one voting members attended and seven proxy votes were exercised. Three prospective members presented their applications for membership. Of these, Belgium and the Netherlands were accepted as new members of ILTER and Norway was conditionally accepted. Sadly, according to ILTER rules, two country members and the southern African regional network (ELTOSA) had to be declared inactive.

A new (non-voting) type of membership of ILTER was approved. Henceforth, countries that do not have national networks may register up to three LTER sites as Affiliated Sites of ILTER. This is particularly welcome in regions where capacity development is required and/or where political interference has put shackles on progress.

Regional reports from Europe, the Americas and East Asia and the Pacific were presented. Three members - Australia, Spain and Italy - reported on their progress.

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View from the world's southernmost forests over the world's southernmost town, Puerto Williams, over the Beagle Channel (named after Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle) towards Terra del Fuego (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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Two Nothofagus spp., also known as the southern beeches, are the dominant trees in the world's southernmost forest (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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A view of the Dientes de Navarino (teeth of Navarino). Nature lovers from all over the world come here in small numbers to explore the area where Darwin studied the same flora and fauna over 150 years ago (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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The miniature forest of Cape Horn - the species diversity of the sub-Antarctic region is found in its mosses, lichens and liverworts, which dominate over vascular plants (Picture: Johan Pauw)

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ILTER science and education projects

Two new ILTER science projects were approved, namely the Tea Bag Litter Decomposition project and a Water Governance Forum. Continuation of work on the Nitrogen Initiative and the Citizen Forum received continued support from ILTER.

To date, the Public-Policy Committee (PPC) had "Education" as one of its mandates. Since this did not turn out as expected, the ILTER decided to start a new subcommittee dedicated to education and a task team was appointed to develop its terms of reference and strategic framework.

Ecology-policy interface

An Ecology-Policy Interface workshop was conducted by the PPC as part of the proceedings of the ILTER meeting. The purpose was to stimulate thinking about how LTER could impact on policy in its general sense.

The lively debate that followed led to the realisation that ILTER performs fairly well in ecology-policy interfacing at the site level, but has so far failed at the international level. This requires stepped-up interfacing with large international initiatives such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services (IPBES). Measurement of the success of ILTER’s policy interfacing will be varied due to the range of possible policy outputs. ILTER subsequently endorsed the continuation of a project on the key outputs and achievements of ILTER.

As a capacity development initiative, China reported that it is planning an "Advanced Training Course on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management for Developing Countries" in 2015. The Nitrogen Initiative is also planning a training workshop.

New committee chairs were elected for the next three years. Michael Mirtl of Austria was elected ILTER chair in 2016 and 2017. By popular demand, South Africa agreed to host the ILTER meeting in 2016. This event will likely become the first open science meeting in ILTER.

Journey to the southernmost forests of the world

I had the immense pleasure of attending two field trips to visit some of the LTSER-Chile sites. The first was a short field trip to the Senda Darwin research station, which demonstrated the long-lasting effect of fire in a system where fire is non-existent. A viewing of an eddy co-variance flux tower was included. A third experiment was about rainfall interception in a forest to simulate a drying climate due to climate change. The experiment found that 30% interception of summer rainfall led to a second peak of leaf fall in summer due to drought, dissimilar to the normal single peak in winter.

The second field trip to the south of Patagonia afforded me the unique experience to travel as far south as Navarino Island, where the southernmost forests of the world are found. In these forests are no more than four tree species, of which only two are abundant. The species diversity of the sub-Antarctic region is found in its mosses, lichens and liverworts which dominate over vascular plants.

Cultural diversity is also significant due to the six small Indian tribes of historic Patagonia, but their traditions are fast disappearing as they are being assimilated into the Chilean society. The last community of Yaghan Indians who lived from fishing around the Tierra del Fuego Islands was moved to Puerto Williams in 1960. Conflict and interdependence between nature and society has therefore been a major field of study in Chile, leading to several papers on environmental ethics and philosophy.

The vastness of Patagonia, the legacy of Charles Darwin and his travels on the Beagle, the opportunity to view huge blue glaciers and water systems were all most impressive. Current research of the Universidad de Magellanes and Chile-LTER in Patagonia focuses on the biodiversity components of the Patagonian ecosystems, e.g. one PhD student is studying invasion and transformation of these ecosystems by exotic beavers.

Since Navarino Island, with its Omora National Park, is at higher latitude than Marion Island, there is reason to think that the park could serve as a reference for the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) sub-Antarctic research on Marion Island. Some of the invertebrates and non-vascular plants found in the park also occur on the Antarctic Peninsula, and are therefore likely to be found on the St Edward Islands as well.

More information about ILTER and its members may be found at www.ilternet.edu. Readers with Linked-In accounts may wish to link up with the open ILTER discussion group.

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Delegates at the entrance to the Omora National Park on Navarino Island, Chile (Picture: Gonzalo)

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