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‘A new kind of environmental scientist' appointed to lead EFTEON


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Dr Gregor Feig, newly appointed manager of the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) 

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Long-term atmospheric modelling and assessment is one of Gregor's key interests 

Dr Gregor Feig joined SAEON on 1 August to drive the development of the large-scale and dispersed Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON).

Recognising the crucial role that research infrastructure plays in innovation and the generation of new knowledge, the Department of Science and Technology developed the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) to facilitate investment in the country's research infrastructure.

In 2017, SAEON was tasked to host two SARIR projects - the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI) and EFTEON. In his column in SAEON eNews, SAEON MD Johan Pauw remarked in August last year that ‘a new kind of environmental scientist will have to be brought on board to lead the interdisciplinary research teams of the new infrastructures - one that can integrate, model and interpret physical, biological and social ecological systems and data'.

Gregor's qualifications and experience make him ideally suited to the challenges posed by his new position. His key competencies and interests lie in long-term atmospheric modelling and assessment, terrestrial biogeochemistry, ecological processes, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and atmospheric chemical and dispersion modelling.

SAEON eNews caught up with Gregor in his hectic first month as EFTEON manager to ask him 10 questions:

EFTEON is going to be a mammoth, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted project; certainly not for the faint-hearted. What attracted you to this position?

There is a need for high-quality monitoring data for use by greater research communities - from modellers to hydrologists, biologists and ecologists. These research communities use this data for validation purposes. The resulting information is essential for climate adaptation and mitigation decision-making. Proper decisions cannot be made in the absence of reliable data to base those decisions on.

What attracted me to this position is that it is a really exciting project that will have great benefit for the local science community. It corresponds to where my academic interests converge and the experience I have had. I feel that it is something worthwhile I can contribute to and can get immersed in quite quickly.

However, it is going to be a big challenge, a bit daunting at times, but exciting as well. There are very few places where researchers can get the validation and verification data if they're running a model or if they're developing a remote sensing product. EFTEON data will improve the assumptions that are being made and will feed into other projects like model development and remote sensing product development. It is essential to have reliable information for both of these.

The intention is that EFTEON acts as an infrastructure hub for terrestrial, freshwater aquatic, atmospheric and social domains. Do you foresee any problems/obstacles in creating such an integrated infrastructure network?

Individual researchers have their own interests and develop communities of practice (COPs) around those areas, but I don't think anyone ever thinks that they're working completely in isolation, even though in their day-to-day activities they may be. Research infrastructure like EFTEON can provide information that is useful across thematic areas; across COPs.

The idea is that EFTEON sets up its own focus groups to identify COPs and engage with them. With a diversity of instrumentation and measurements at a site like those envisaged for EFTEON, information can be provided which feeds into a number of those thematic areas and facilitates the exchange of knowledge across these groups.

Ecosystem processes take place at large scales and over lengthy periods, which poses significant challenges for EFTEON in terms of infrastructure safety (especially in remote sites), durability and maintenance. How does one address these challenges? And how will EFTEON ensure that its infrastructure is not only working well, but is also fit-for-use?

These are some of the biggest challenges in setting up infrastructure of this nature. One needs to think very carefully about the long-term implications such as maintaining the infrastructure, making sure that replacement infrastructure is available, that your staffing is such that you can send people out there to check the instrumentation; that you have intercomparability in terms of instrumentation so that if you're bringing in a new model, the data you produce still corresponds to the data produced in the past. In terms of calibration, one needs to ensure that there is continuity in the data sets that are being produced. These are not insurmountable challenges, as best practices across the world have indicated.

Infrastructure safety depends largely on site selection. While working at the South African Weather Service (SAWS) I realised that infrastructure safety can be improved by means of community engagement. Most of the SAWS monitoring sites were located at schools, and we found that ongoing engagement with the learners increased their awareness and understanding, and hence the safety of the infrastructure.

EFTEON will be a platform and provider of data that will be used by many, including SAEON. How are you going to promote your data sets so that stakeholders know what is available?

The data will be made available via the SAEON platform or appropriate other platforms. Due to the currently limited number of similar monitoring platforms on the continent, this data will be eagerly awaited and anticipated.

Once the data becomes available and starts developing a reputation for good quality, it will advertise itself. However, there will have to be prior engagement with the various stakeholders using the data to make sure that happens. Further value will be extracted out of these data for national assessments, like the data in the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas that is regularly updated, and a variety of national and international management plans. This data will be very useful in decisions on how to deal with a changing environment.

We are approaching critical environmental limits – nationally, Africa-wide and globally. What role do you see EFTEON playing in the prevention and mitigation of climate risks and climate change?

It is said that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. It is critical for EFTEON, and for SAEON in general, to undertake environmental measurements to provide the science-enriched background information that will feed into science-based policy development.

These core measurements provide the backbone information of how the environment is changing over the long term and that is one of the key roles that EFTEON will play. If EFTEON can provide these data sets, scientists can use the data and, ultimately, policy- and decision-makers will be able to draw on that science for practical applications.

To know where we stand in terms of global change we need to provide a solid, good quality, long-term baseline that can be relied on not to miss critical events and that is traceable to international measurements as well.

Routine acquisition and processing of remotely sensed data (from satellites, aircraft and autonomous vehicles) for the target landscapes forms an integral part of the system, as does assimilation of the observations into models. Will all of this be undertaken by EFTEON researchers at the nodes?

Probably not. As far as I see it, the core of EFTEON is the operation of in-situ instrumentation. Spatial data will need to be developed for the areas surrounding the EFTEON sites. I imagine that would be something that would be done on a periodic basis, maybe using skills that exist in other EFTEON nodes. SMCRI is in the process of purchasing an aircraft with capabilities for this kind of remote sensing, which may come in useful to obtain site information on a regular basis.

However, the information from the EFTEON sites will be essential for remote sensing and model development in terms of calibration and validation of those models, the evaluation of the models themselves and then perhaps the integration of the live real-time (Internet of Things) data into real-time models. Close relationships within these modelling and remote sensing communities will be essential.

The focus for EFTEON is not to run models of this nature, but to provide data for feeding into modelling activities. EFTEON will function as an enabler

EFTEON will also undertake community outreach and engagement. Household survey data will be collected in communities surrounding the nodes, for example. How will this data be used into the future and how will communities be able to benefit from that?

To understand the environment, you need to understand the human dimensions. Humans are users of ecosystem services as well as drivers of change - from land-use change to climate change to decision-making based on land access.

In EFTEON's plans there are ideas for community outreach and engagement. SAEON has a competent science engagement team on board that will handle most of the community outreach, but I'm always willing to visit schools and present to communities in order to translate the science that we are doing into engaging and relevant key messages that people can understand.

Although the EFTEON system is globally unique in the degree to which it integrates social, biological and physical observations, it might share at least some similarities with networks such as ICOS, NEON, CERN and TERN. How will EFTEON differ from these networks? Will you be exploring possible synergies and opportunities for collaboration with them? And what role do you see EFTEON playing within the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER)?

We will definitely be exploring opportunities for collaboration. These and other organisations have developed a huge amount of experience in answering similar questions. We would want to draw on these competencies in planning and rolling out our own infrastructure. There is some very useful information out there in terms of best practices, which can provide substantial guidance in the establishment and implementation of EFTEON, but it would also be important to mould it to South Africa's own strengths.

We need to consider what would be appropriate for our own circumstances and needs and what would speak to our own situation and strengths. In the context of EFTEON there will be measurements in terrestrial and freshwater systems, which I think is quite unique. These are strongly grounded in the social context, which is something that we are focusing on and which is different to many of the other networks. This focus constitutes a very strong selling point for EFTEON.

The objective to study social-ecological relations directly, places EFTEON in the domain of the novel Long-Term Social-Ecological Research (LTSER) sites of ILTER. EFTEON would like to ensure that it fits in very well with the ILTER mandate. SAEON has played something of a leading role in ILTER. These relationships need to be expanded and continued.

There is a proposal for a Global Research Infrastructure Programme and I would like to investigate where and how EFTEON could be part of that.

Would you like to give me your views on EFTEON's capacity development component?

Budgetary provision has been made for bursaries, postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers, much like SAEON is currently doing to good effect. Students have the time to focus their energy on science and ask the pertinent science questions, hence collaboration with the universities can assist in driving the science questions and utilising the science data.

One of the things I've realised is that South African students lack experience in operating monitoring infrastructure and instrumentation. They can get to a fairly advanced level, such as a PhD, without actually having worked with any instruments or having had any exposure to infrastructure and monitoring stations.

EFTEON will provide a key opportunity for students to get their hands dirty, to see what instrumentation looks like, for dealing with data, and for dealing with instrumentation in the field, and I think that could be of considerable value in addressing the lack of experience in operating infrastructure.

Government departments like Environmental Affairs and Water and Sanitation, as well as industry, need instrument technicians that are competent in environmental measurements. Through EFTEON we would be able to provide at least some of those skills.

Transforming the economy is critical for South Africa. The National Development Plan 2030 aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030. The Green Economy aims to grow economic activity and create a shift in the economy towards cleaner industries and sectors. Do you foresee that EFTEON will be able to contribute significantly to these initiatives?

EFTEON will definitely be able contribute to these initiatives. To enable scientists and decision-makers to understand and assess environmental risks and to build science-based policy for the country, EFTEON will be providing long-term data sets which can be used to evaluate what changes are occurring and to identify any new changes in order to quantify those.

To a smaller extent there is a contribution of skills development. There will be technicians and scientists coming through the EFTEON programme. Many of them will go on to other sectors and ask other questions; they will take the skills that they've learnt from SAEON and EFTEON and apply these in other areas.

FAST FACTS ABOUT GREGOR

  • Gregor Feig has a PhD (Magna Cum Laude) in Earth Systems Sciences from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
  • He met his American wife in Germany. She was doing a postdoc at the same institute where he completed his PhD.
  • He was born in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. From there the family moved to Liberia and then to Hamburg in Germany before settling in South Africa in 1985. He grew up in Johannesburg.
  • He's been interested in the environment since childhood. The family often spent their holidays camping in the Kruger National Park. "As a kid I liked to spend time digging in the garden, turning the soil," he says. "I was lucky - we lived on a hill in Johannesburg (Langeman's Kop), so we had a natural grassland in our mid-city backyard with rocks and scorpions and snakes and birds, which is where a lot of that interest developed."
  • Hobbies: "I like hobbies like hiking, canoeing and fishing that take me outdoors. I also like cooking and I try to maintain a fairly decent vegetable garden."
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