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Innovative agreement paves the way for a new era of symbiotic science


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On 1 November 2017, SAEON and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) signed a three-year memorandum of agreement to implement the integrated environmental management plan for the Square Kilometre Array project in South Africa.

The environmental assessment will influence the final positioning of the SKA dishes being built in the Karoo. It is also envisaged that the SKA land will be managed as a nature reserve that will serve as a science park for both astronomy and ecology.

Reflecting on this novel new agreement, Johan Pauw, Managing Director of SAEON says: “South Africans will experience significant value-addition from this extraordinary synergistic relationship between two seemingly opposing sciences. For the first time ever, Radio Astronomy and Earth Observation research infrastructures will be collaborating in South Africa to ensure sound environmental management.”

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The core area of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which comprises some 130 000 hectares, will be managed as a nature reserve and a science park for both astronomy and ecology.

Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director of SARAO, says: “This agreement will enable our site for radio astronomy research to become a site for earth observation research too.”

The SKA project in South Africa is managed by SARAO. SAEON and SARAO are National Research Facilities managed by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The recently appointed Deputy CEO of the National Research Foundation, Dr Clifford Nxomani, who is responsible for the National Research Facilities says: “It is strategic alignments like this one that create new opportunities for integrative science and provide new platforms for the training of the next generation of scientists.”

Key deliverables

The Internal Memorandum of Agreement includes several undertakings and deliverables agreed upon by SARAO and SAEON. Dr Casper Crouswho has been appointed as ecologist at SAEON’s Arid Lands Node to coordinate these research activities, explains what SAEON’s key deliverables and possible research outcomes would entail:

The SKA site falls within the endemic Nama Karoo biome, in an area known as the Bushmanland. With SARAO set to be a global leader in radio astronomy, the SKA project will shine a bright spotlight on these parts of the Karoo.

This remote region has remained largely unstudied. Very little is known of the biotic and abiotic elements present in the landscape, and as a result, even less is known about how these elements would respond to future changes in land-use and environmental conditions. In this light, SARAO has made a commitment to construct all infrastructure on the site in an environmentally sensitive way.

In terms of the agreement, SAEON’s key deliverables will be to undertake all biodiversity and ecology walk-throughs for SARAO, specifically where SKA infrastructure will be built. These walk-throughs will ensure compliance with environmental management targets set out in the integrated environmental management plan for the SKA project.

With plans under way to establish the SKA core site as a formally protected area, SAEON will assist with the motivation to have the site declared a protected area by providing information and advice to SANParks, the designated SKA land-management authority. In turn, SARAO has agreed to long-term ecological research being conducted by SAEON.

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The environmental assessment will influence the final positioning of the SKA dishes being built in the Karoo.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

SAEON and SARAO signed a three-year memorandum of agreement to implement the integrated environmental management plan for the SKA project in South Africa. From left: Recently appointed Deputy CEO of the National Research Foundation, Dr Clifford Nxomani; SARAO Managing Director Dr Rob Adam and SAEON Managing Director Johan Pauw at the signing in Pretoria on 1 November 2017.

The opportunity to carry out long-term research at the SKA site is ideal in view of both SAEON and the Arid Lands Node objectives. The SKA core area comprises around 130 000 hectares, and all livestock are currently being removed from the site. This means that around 13 000 sheep will no longer graze these drylands. From a long-term science point of view, this livestock removal presents an ideal opportunity to document the effects of grazing exclusion across a very large, understudied area in the Nama Karoo.

Such research could, with time, provide critical control or baseline conditions to relate to neighbouring farm management, thereby improving commodity production and conservation planning for the biome in general. In this light, SAEON’s objectives in managing long-term research at the SKA would include coordinating field research experiments on fauna and flora in the SKA area, and engaging with the wider science community to attract potential research, innovation, and learning into this largely unstudied Karoo environment.

Collectively, this agreement between SAEON and SARAO would improve the ecological knowledge base for the Nama Karoo biome, and with this commitment to maintain long-term environmental monitoring experiments, can help assess and address potential land-use and climate change issues.

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