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Tierberg-LTER: there for you on the LT with ER

By Joh Henschel, SAEON Arid Lands Node
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Long-term ecological research (LTER) is conceptually morphing to encompass social-ecological approaches (LTSER) in recognition that people are part of the environment.

With the increasing demand for understanding ecosystem structures, processes and functioning in view of global change, it is very important to build on what we know.

That is why SAEON's research platform at Tierberg-LTER is so significant. This ordinary-looking patch of Karoo is by no means ordinary, as it is infused with critical insights, brimming in scope and volume, gained through research on fine-scale ecosystem dynamics and drivers, much of which is revealed in 150 publications.

This was not achieved overnight. The cumulative effect of 30 years of research at Tierberg-LTER does not merely constitute "just-so stories" of this part of the Karoo, but bears fundamental lessons for the Karoo as a whole, if not for the rest of southern Africa and arid lands across the world.

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Tierberg-LTER (with huts in the distant centre) is an ordinary patch of Karoo in the middle of the plains of the Sandrivier Valley

These rustic facilities have enabled scientists and students to deliver the most productive science of the Karoo, and continue to do so

An overarching lesson from Tierberg is that dryland rangeland management benefits from a good understanding of underlying processes. These processes are to a large extent driven by unpredictable climatic events, such as periodic storms, as well as long-term trends, such as the gradual warming and drying recorded at Tierberg over the past three decades.

Complex responses to disturbances of plants with various life-histories and population dynamics lead to unpredictable patterns, all having one thing in common in terms of environmental change: slow speed.

Bold changes in and around Tierberg

However, Tierberg itself is undergoing a number of bold changes, one being the commitment by SAEON four years ago to build on the legacy of Drs Richard Dean and Sue Milton and a large number of their colleagues and students since 1986. The transition of what started out as the Tierberg Karoo Research Centre to a functional long-term ecological research site, Tierberg-LTER, opens a new era of opportunities.

In SAEON-speak, long-term means "for ever", or at least as long as additional intellectual value can be gained from this site. The value of thirty years of research cannot be expressed in monetary terms, as it is a gradual development process that has brought about the growing value of this site to society in terms of its contributions towards addressing problems through knowledge.

The other major change that has increased the value and enhanced research opportunities at this site concerns the land-use change surrounding Tierberg-LTER itself. Where previously the Tierberg-LTER property was the size of a paddock among surrounding sheep paddocks, it is now in the middle of what is destined to become an unfenced private game farm.

With foresight, the new managers have announced that they have designated the land around Tierberg-LTER as breeding sanctuary for game, appropriate for game suited to Karoo shrublands. Although Tierberg-LTER may now, in effect, resemble an enclave in a Karoo game paradise, it is actually a window through which to observe environmental changes into the future.

Whereas 30 years ago, Tierberg was the only dedicated ecological research site in the Karoo besides several agricultural sites, it is now nested in a steadily expanding network of other study sites across the Karoo, including the Wolwekraal Nature Reserve where SAEON has an office, and is involved in research concerning environmental changes at a peri-urban interface. Other emerging Karoo sites include resurveyed agricultural sites and Square Kilometre Environmental Observatories that are being set up through the SANBI-led BioGaps programme and by SAEON at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

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Tierberg-LTER accommodation includes solar power, sufficient for room lights, a laptop and travel fridge, and all one needs for a good night's sleep to support a good day's work

A generation of scientists (here, William Bond and Sue Milton) have sharpened their teeth on concepts developed at Tierberg-LTER, and now facilitate the continuation by future generations

Among all these, Tierberg-LTER is currently the only public permanently populated ecosystem research site in the Karoo besides agricultural research centres such as Grootfontein. It is thus uniquely suited to conduct detailed long-term observations and experiments to elucidate relationships between climate, ecohydrology, nutrients, flora, fauna and land uses. No other Karoo site can attain similar levels of experience in the near future.

Tierberg-LTER has a legacy of serving as springboard for young careers, and is continuing to do so through interns and postgraduate students, and thus remains a fountain of ecological insights into the future. This platform gains immensely in significance as the Karoo is poised to be subjected to major large-scale infrastructure developments while facing global change.

This is exemplary of SAEON's vision of furthering a knowledge society, whose key values include ecosystem integrity and sustainable development. Tierberg-LTER is set to keep up ER for the LT.

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