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My first SASAS conference: Probing the challenges of a warming planet

By Ramontsheng Rapolaki, PhD Candidate in Ocean & Atmosphere Science*
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Ramontsheng chairs a session on weather systems (Picture courtesy of SASAS)

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Day one’s keynote address was delivered by Prof. Francois Engelbrecht, a researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Picture courtesy of SASAS)

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Prof. Natalie Burls, an invited lecturer from George Mason University in the USA, delivers her presentation on “Wetter subtropics in a warmer world: contrasting past and future hydrological cycles” (Picture courtesy of SASAS)

It has been a great learning experience attending the 33rd annual conference of the South African Society for Atmospheric Sciences (SASAS) held in Polokwane from 21 to 22 September 2017, and hosted by the University of Venda.

SASAS as a society aims to “promote and develop atmospheric sciences in the broader Southern African context”.

The theme for this year’s SASAS was “challenges of warming planet”. The diverse programme covered topics ranging from climate modelling, atmospheric chemistry and weather systems to rainfall and surface hydrology, with most of the talks given by students from seven South African universities.

The conference provided an excellent networking platform and offered an opportunity for students to engage and get feedback on their work from senior scientists and experts from various research institutions in South Africa and abroad.

Keynotes and lectures

The conference was opened by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Venda, Prof. Peter Mbati, who welcomed the delegates to the first-ever SASAS conference to be held in Limpopo. He highlighted that this region is of interest to many atmospheric scientists because of its climate variability and vulnerability to floods and droughts, and because it is highly impacted by El Niño conditions.

Following the opening address, Prof. Francois Engelbrecht from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) gave a stimulating and thought-provoking talk on “Can the 2-degree global temperature goal save Africa from dangerous climate change?” Next, Prof. Geoff Pegram, a professor emeritus in Engineering and a senior research associate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, gave a talk on “Stochastic Hydrological Modelling: a 50-year Personal Perspective”.

The second day’s proceedings started on a high note with a talk on “Wetter subtropics in a warmer world: contrasting past and future hydrological cycles” by Prof. Natalie Burls, an invited lecturer from the Centre for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies at George Mason University, USA. Next on the agenda was a plenary session on climate service and research opportunity, focusing on collaborations, funding opportunities, and communicating climate change and global warming to a non-scientific community.

The final keynote address was delivered by Prof. Chris Reason from the University of Cape Town, on “What is unique about the oceans around southern Africa and how does it influence our climate?” Prof. Reason’s talk painted a clear picture of how conditions in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans influence the weather and climate of Southern Africa.

Chairing a scientific session on weather systems

Due to the high proportion of students at this conference, five out of ten parallel sessions were chaired by students with the aim of building capacity among the next generation of scientists. I had the privilege of chairing a session on weather systems.

Chairing a conference session was not something I had imagined I would do anytime soon, especially because I had never attended SASAS before. Although this came as a surprise, I seized the opportunity.

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The poster session offered an opportunity for students to engage and get feedback on their work (Picture courtesy of SASAS)

I have learnt that chairing a session is not as easy as it looks. There are a lot of things that can go wrong, such as speakers withdrawing from the programme at the last minute or not showing up at all, or technical problems during the session. Luckily, everything went well except for one speaker withdrawing from the programme and a minor technical issue with the slides during one of the presentations which we could resolve without much delay.

Although I could not stay long enough after my presentation to get some feedback, I think this conference was well organised and very successful. I now have a better understanding of what chairing a session entails and have also improved my presentation and public speaking skills.

A big thanks to the SAEON Egagasini Node for covering my travelling and accommodation expenses, and the Oceanography Department of the University of Cape Town for paying the conference registration fee.

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The conference was attended by about 100 delegates from 16 institutions (Picture courtesy of SASAS)

* SAEON Egagasini Node and University of Cape Town

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