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Investing in people and skills for SAEON’s expanding instrument array

By Sue J. van Rensburg, Coordinator, SAEON Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node

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The development of human capital, advancement of research infrastructure and generation of knowledge are cross-cutting themes within the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

A core function of SAEON, as an emerging facility within the NRF, is to develop platforms to facilitate global change research across the country’s biomes. An injection of funding through the DST’s Strategic Research Infrastructure Grant, is enabling SAEON to make a significant investment into instrument arrays across its nodes. The aim is to ensure that a coordinated set of physical observation parameters are collected across the terrestrial biomes. These parameters will relate to weather, eco-hydrology and energy-carbon-water flux.

The data streams will complement current hydrological observations aimed at detecting and understanding the impact of global change on South Africa’s water resources. Adding carbon-energy-water flux capacity to the instrument array is important to provide the means for understanding the interplay between biodiversity, ecological patterns, and shifts in these in relation to earth system processes.

Guiding this programme is hydro-meteorologist Prof. Colin Everson, who joined SAEON in January 2015. The net result will be the expansion of a sophisticated network of instruments that form a powerful research infrastructure platform. Such a platform provides a catalyst for enabling capacity development of both academic and technical skills.

Ultimately it is hoped that the knowledge generated from these instruments, in partnership with collaborators and experts in the field, will help SAEON scientists detect global change impacts and lead to a greater understanding of the processes within systems and how change might affect these. The ultimate aim is to reduce levels of uncertainty linked to regional climate models, and enable more reliable future projections.

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Dr Michael Mengistu shares his experience in logger programming with the group

Michael explains the Open Path Eddy Covariance System and what it is used for

Tercia (left) and Siphiwe test a thermocouple

SAEON’s terrestrial technicians

SAEON’s technical team members provide a vital function for its global change monitoring platforms. Their work ensures long-term, reliable and continuous data collection across a range of fields - from biodiversity monitoring to hydrological and meteorological monitoring. Representing a range of backgrounds, each member of the technical team has a different set of skills to offer, making for a potentially powerful and enabling resource within SAEON.

The expansion of the current terrestrial instrument array, including sophisticated equipment for which skills in South Africa are fairly rare, provided the motivation for a special training workshop for the technical team. Students working on these and similar instruments, as well as interns within SAEON were also invited to attend.

Funding for the gathering was made possible by an NRF Equipment-related Travel and Training Grant sourced by the SAEON Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node.

Sharing knowledge and building capacity

Leading the training, Prof. Colin Everson shared years of experience with the participants, including the little tricks one does not find in manuals, but which help in preparing and deploying the instruments.

He was assisted by Dr Michael Mengistu from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), a physicist by training who did his PhD on surface renewal techniques for measuring evapotranspiration. Michael is assisting SAEON with the Open Path Eddy Covariance System deployed in catchment six at Cathedral Peak. He shared his knowledge on the physics behind some of the measurements to be taken as well as his extensive experience in logger programming.

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Abri (left) and Thami programme a logger

Thami (left), Siphiwe (centre) and Tshililo prepare a rain gauge

What wire goes where?

On-site training

The week’s training took place at Cathedral Peak. The programme started with a field trip up into the Cathedral Peak research catchments, where a number of instruments had been put in place by the SAEON Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node.

This provided a useful platform to orientate the team not only to the "what" and "how", but also to the "why". Seeing the different instruments and explaining the rationale for the various parameters being measured, and their relevance to global change science, helped develop a common sense of direction within the team.

Then it was time for the lectures and hands-on practical. Topics covered were basic electronic circuitry, the different sensors and what they measure, calibration issues, logger programming and the physics behind some of the measured variables. The training was interactive and it was not long before the group was wiring up systems, programming loggers and collecting data.

The final test for the team was to set up a fully automatic weather station complemented with several extra sensors for measuring components of radiation and albedo. "What was amazing is how well the group worked together, helping each other figure it out and troubleshooting challenges thrown at them along the way," says Colin.

In addition to instrument training, delegates participated in a session on data management, which saw technicians sharing information on some of the projects and systems they are using to collect and store data other than those from the instrument array. Margaret Koopman, data librarian at the Fynbos Node, talked about the various SAEON data repositories and highlighted the importance of metadata. Fynbos Node technician Abri de Buys then talked the team through the Observations Database, where all the instrument data will ultimately be stored.

A key priority moving forward is ensuring comparable data collection and flows from field to a safe repository. Several innovative ideas emerged from the team on streamlining and standardising procedures to ensure reliability of the end product, with a strong focus on coordinated metadata standards.

Value added

Building technical capacity was a central component of the training, but the opportunity provided something more powerful than just training. Being able to gather as a team and get to know each other was probably the most valued outcome of the week.

As Paul Gordijn (Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node technician - botanical) commented, "This was the first workshop of hopefully many more to come. I think all of us felt that this needs to become a regular occurrence - there is lots of collective knowledge that needs to be transferred."


The logger is programmed to SAEON requirements. From left: Abri, Rion (with laptop), Siphiwe, Tercia, Michael, Paul (at the back), Shaeden, Tshililo, Thami, Kent, Marco and Colin (Picture: Margaret Koopman)


Back row, from left: Abri de Buys (Fynbos Node technician), Thami Shezi (Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node intern), Shaeden Gokool (PhD student, Ndlovu Node), Margaret Koopman (data librarian, Fynbos Node), Wally (team mascot), Rion Lerm (Ndlovu Node technician), Tshililo Ramaswiela (Arid Lands Node technician), Paul Gordijn (Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node technician - botanical) and Kent Lawrence (Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node technician - instrument platform). Front row, from left: Prof. Colin Everson (SAEON hydro-meteorologist), Siphiwe Mfeka (UKZN assistant technician), Dr Michael Mengistu (UKZN lecturer) and Tercia Strydom (Phd student, Ndlovu Node, employed by SANParks). Behind the camera: Sue Janse van Rensburg

Talking informally about all the field activities, challenges and approaches helps the group to learn from each other and certainly helps streamline operations, but it also brings the team closer together. All in all the initiative had a motivating impact on everyone involved.

Abri de Buys, SAEON Fynbos Node technician concluded, "It was great to finally meet other technicians and students who will be working with similar equipment and to learn from their expertise. I think it makes us a better team if we can pick up the phone and know who's at the other end."


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