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SAEON installs high-altitude automated weather station in SA’s most critical water catchment

By Kent Lawrence, Technician, SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node
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Scouting out suitable sites for the weather station


SAEON’s hydro-meteorologist Prof. Colin Everson (centre) tests the system, assisted by Siphiwe (right) and observed by helicopter pilot Brett Tungay

In the face of global climate change it is crucial that environmental changes within South Africa are monitored and understood.

The Drakensberg Mountain Range is South Africa’s most important source of freshwater, acting as the ‘water tower’ of the country. It is for this reason that SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node devotes the majority of its efforts to this frontier global research platform situated within the Central Maloti Drakensberg Mountains*.

Following SAEON's decision to install a high-altitude automated weather station in this crucial research area, Node technician Kent Lawrence and assistant technician Siphiwe Mfeka took on the challenge. Their training and preparation began at SAEON’s technicians’ workshop, where they both learnt a great deal, developing the foundation they needed in taking on such a big task. 

Designing the structure to hold the various instruments required detailed planning and innovation under the expert guidance of SAEON’s hydro-meteorologist Prof. Colin Everson. A program had to be developed to operate the logger, which is considered the brain of the weather system. Kent and Siphiwe both found the programming to be a valuable learning experience. The weather station with all the sensors attached was set up outside the Node offices to test the structure, instruments and program.

The weather station is equipped with nine instruments, measuring a wide range of environmental variables, namely rainfall, fog, soil moisture, dew-point temperature, ambient temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, UV, net radiation and solar radiation. Communication was set up with the installation of a modem linked to the weather station - to enable a live data stream to the public.

The station was left to run for a few weeks outside the Node offices in order to assess the data accuracy and functioning of the instruments. Installing a fully functioning weather station at an altitude greater than 3000 m left no room for error!

Scouting out a suitable site

All due environmental impact assessment processes were followed in obtaining permission from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) to set up the weather station on a high-altitude plateau within the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Park. The deployment was supported by EKZNW park managers, Mountain Rescue (Mountain Club of South Africa) and aviation operators in the area.

The initial phase began with a scouting by helicopter to select a site. The first flight was successful in finding the ideal site on an inselberg at 3000 m amsl only accessible by helicopter or rock climbing.

Once the team were satisfied that the weather station system was stable, and measuring and collecting data correctly, it was up to the helicopter pilot to identify a safe weather window for the installation. The helicopter flight to the high-altitude site was the highlight of the experiences - the exhilarating flight afforded breath-taking views of the mountain range.


SAEON's Kent Lawrence (left) and Siphiwe Mfeka take on the challenge of putting together a fully functioning weather station at an altitude greater than 3000 metres, which leaves no room for error


The weather station was installed on 6 August 2015. The team completed the installation in one day - a day ahead of schedule. All-in-all, the deployment project was a huge success from start to finish. According to Kent and Siphiwe they have walked away from this journey feeling proud of their achievements; most importantly they have gained new knowledge and experience under Prof. Colin Everson’s mentorship.


The weather station is deployed and ready for action

This is the second weather station to be deployed in a high-altitude catchment in South Africa. The first was deployed by SAEON's Fynbos Node at   1 214 metres above sea level on top of the mountain at the head of the Jonkershoek Valley. The automated weather stations are expected to provide in-depth understanding of changing environmental conditions in high-altitude environments.

With an expanding instrument array envisaged in the near future, SAEON is looking forward to more exciting projects to come.

* The Maloti Drakensberg Transboundary World Heritage Site is a transnational property spanning the border between the Kingdom of Lesotho and South Africa.

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