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Investigating the impacts of global change in South Africa’s ‘water towers’

By Byron Gray, PhD candidate, University of KwaZulu-Natal, based at SAEON’s Grassland-Forest-Wetland Node
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It is crucial to understand the hydrological processes and the impacts that climate and land-cover change will have on the 'water towers' of South Africa 

Over time and at an increasing rate, global change is occurring. Two of the main drivers of global change are climate change and land-cover change. Both are taking place at increasing rates due to anthropogenic activities.

Cathedral Peak is located in the ‘water towers’ of South Africa. These high-altitude catchments are highly sensitive to global change, yet little is known about the hydrology in this sparsely gauged region.

It is crucial to understand the hydrological processes and the impacts that climate and land-cover change will have. As these areas provide water for KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, any changes in their water yield will have significant implications for water resources management. It is also necessary to understand and investigate whether the degraded grasslands will be able to recover following a disturbance such as overgrazing or land-use change, and if recovery is possible, at what rate.

Understanding the links between the hydrology and vegetation in this region is very important and is an area that needs attention. My PhD will look at investigating the impacts of global change, with a focus on the effects of land-cover change on hydrological processes at a catchment scale in the Cathedral Peak research catchments.

Cathedral Peak is the ideal location for this research due to its well-gauged catchments with a good length of data record, which is vital when investigating global change impacts. Through previous experience working with SAEON for my Honours and MSc projects, I have been exposed to the value and benefits of working across disciplines, which will be an important part of my PhD, as I will require a hydrological and ecological perspective to understand how the hydrology and vegetation interact in a catchment under changing conditions.

Annual Catchment Science Summer School

To help formulate my PhD ideas and methodology, as well as to improve my understanding and knowledge of hillslope hydrology, I was provided the opportunity to attend the 8th Annual Catchment Science Summer School hosted at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in August.

The summer school consisted of 31 students at different stages of their PhDs. Various universities and research institutions were represented - from Europe to as far as America, Taiwan and (myself from) South Africa. The aims of the course were to understand the evolution of empirical and theoretical development in runoff process research, hydrochemical and isotopic measurement and analysis, and model integration, linking field experiments with modelling approaches.

The course consisted of an intense week with a good mixture of lectures, discussions and practical sessions. It all started with a meet-and-greet on the Sunday evening, where we had the opportunity, using posters, to present our work to the group to gain an understanding of the different research backgrounds of all the students.

On the Wednesday we had the opportunity to visit the Girnock Burn catchment located on the Balmoral Estate, about a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Aberdeen. Visiting this catchment was a worthwhile experience. Compared with the catchments in the Drakensberg and South Africa in general, it was very different in terms of the climate, vegetation, geology, topography and experimental procedures.

The course concluded on the Friday with very informative and useful lectures on launching an academic career, tackling a PhD, getting your research noticed and publishing papers efficiently. This was a very useful aspect of the course, as I am only just embarking on my PhD journey.

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PhD candidate Byron Gray at the Girnock Burn catchment on the wet and misty day of the field trip

During the course I realised just how rare long-term monitoring sites such as Cathedral Peak are, and how fortunate we are to have them. A big issue is that most sites are used for short-term studies in general, with a common problem being the lack of long-term funding to keep the sites operational following the conclusion of the project. This becomes a considerable problem when long-term data sets are needed for the monitoring and investigation of the various components of global change.

I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr Michele Toucher, who made it possible for me to attend this course and advance my understanding of catchment hydrological processes, as well as to travel and experience the United Kingdom. Networking with other PhD students from around the world was an invaluable experience that I greatly appreciate.

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