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Baptism of fire

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

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The month of May signals the start of the fire season in Cathedral Peak. With over a million rand’s worth of research equipment in the catchments, fire protection is vital.

This was one of the first challenges thrown to the new Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node technician, Kent Lawrence, who joined the Node on 1 April this year. Kent is responsible for the maintenance of research infrastructure, data flows and the expansion of the Node’s instrument array. He immediately picked up the challenge with the monthly route patrol to 24 rain gauges scattered across the catchments in the Cathedral Peak study site.


The month of May signals the start of the fire season at Cathedral Peak (Picture: Sue Janse van Rensburg).


Sibu Mkeka from EKZNW shows Kent how to take case height readings at one of the groundwater monitoring wells in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (Picture: Sue Janse van Rensburg)

These gauges replicate the historic array set up by the then Department of Forestry in the 1940s. It takes two full days of hiking in steep terrain to access, check, service and download data at all these stations.

Byron Gray kindly showed Kent the "slopes" and easiest tracks to get to the gauges, which are often situated in precariously steep terrain. Byron completed his Honours degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Water Resources Research (UKZN-CWRR) last year on the cross-calibration of rain gauges in Cathedral Peak and is extending his calibration research as part of his MSc.

Byron’s work forms part of a bigger collaboration between UKZN-CWRR and the SAEON Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node. This study towards the establishment of a more robust observation network to improve understanding of global change in the sensitive and critical water supply area of the Drakensberg is funded by the Water Research Commission.


Kent (green hat) and Mr Mokwena (red helmet) lead the fire line around the Eddy Covariance System (Picture: Sue Janse van Rensburg).


Burning around the LAS transmitter (Picture: Sue Janse van Rensburg)

Getting to grips with groundwater

Then Kent was off to iSimangaliso Wetland Park, where the SAEON Grasslands-Forest-Wetland Node has a pilot groundwater monitoring project underway in collaboration with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) and the iSimangaliso Park. This project builds on a 30-year data set collected by EKZNW on the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia.

The Node has deployed 14 loggers in the eastern and western shores of the Park. Data collected from these loggers will help establish an accurate understanding of recharge dynamics in relation to rainfall, under different land forms and land use types, based on high-resolution data (hourly).

The project aims to contribute to improving regional scale models, accounting for the impact of climate and land use on the system as a whole, integrating ground, surface and lake hydrology. The outputs of the project will be useful in informing sustainable development options for the surrounding area with respect to water resource management.


Three down; one to go (Picture: Sue Janse van Rensburg).


Success, and a well-deserved drink of water (Picture: Sue Janse van Rensburg)


Then it was back to the mountains. Essentially the brief given to Kent was to organise a temporary team and prepare cut breaks around the Node’s research equipment and stilling houses. This activity - providing support for the maintenance of research infrastructure - is made possible with funding from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Natural Resource Monitoring Programme.

Kent was instructed to liaise with EKZNW and the Working on Fire team stationed at Cathedral Peak to burn the breaks around the equipment. Within the first six weeks in his new position, Kent had succeeded in orientating himself to the Node’s two key sites, learned how to put in fire breaks and download an array of different instruments, received intensive instrument training at the recent Technical Training Workshop held at Cathedral Peak, and developed close working relationships with key collaborators and stakeholders at EKZNW.


Figure 1. Map showing the Cathedral Peak research catchments and the position of the current rain gauge array. Areas marked in red indicate the focal SAEON catchments, where streamflow is being measured in addition to a number of other parameters.


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