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New arid systems ecologist appointed to boost arid lands research

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Award-winning scientist Helga van der Merwe has published numerous scientific and popular articles on studies conducted in the arid regions of South Africa

Dr Helga van der Merwe is no stranger to SAEON. Over the past five years this award-winning and widely published scientist has contributed significantly to the depth and breadth of arid region research in South Africa as part of the Arid Lands Node team.

SAEON eNews caught up with Helga to learn more about her past research as a SAEON scientist and the opportunities inherent in pioneering this exciting new position at the node.

In 2014 you were awarded a Research Career Award Fellowship (RCAF) by the National Research Foundation (NRF) for a period of five years and were accordingly appointed as a scientist in the SAEON Arid Lands Node. What were the highlights for you during this period?

The RCAF grant provided me with many opportunities and it is difficult to list only a few. Firstly, it was a real honour to get to know and work with the numerous experts in different fields of study in the arid region. I learnt a lot about numerous projects that were, and some are still, continuing in the arid lands.

My five years at SAEON moreover gave me exposure to scientists with expertise other than in arid regions such as research in more mesic areas, aquatic and marine sciences. I was also exposed to scientists doing ‘instrument’ and data science as well as modelling. This has all added to my development as a scientist.

From your perspective of working in the Karoo for many years, what are the most critical aspects that need to be addressed?

We need to improve our understanding of how arid systems function to enable us to make informed decisions for the future. The arid regions are marginal areas to begin with and the environment is sensitive to the smallest of impacts.

The people of the Karoo live close to nature under harsh conditions such as extreme summer heat, icy cold winter temperatures and always receiving very little or no rain. The inhabitants also face other challenges, such as the great distances that need to be covered for their children to go to school or to receive medical attention.

Economic factors and high unemployment rates further add strain. Access to water is becoming an ever-increasing problem and the little that there is, is being stolen by the alien invasive species Prosopis. Water issues go to a whole new level in times of drought but even more so when the drought continues over many years as is currently being experienced.


Helga has been involved in various ecological studies in the Northern Cape, including Namaqualand (pictured) and the Kalahari (Photo: Johan Pauw)

If we improve our understanding of how arid systems function, we can attempt to mitigate some of the issues and inform people and policy on how to reduce the severity of impacts on the local inhabitants and the environment. This becomes increasingly important in anticipation of the effects of climate change.

Now that you are on board as arid systems ecologist with SAEON what opportunities do you see for yourself, how does this position realise your aspirations and what could be the challenges?

I see opportunities in expanding research across the arid region by adding long-term monitoring sites to historical and currently studied sites in collaboration with established and upcoming researchers from various institutions in South Africa and abroad. Additional to visiting and studying new sites, the research position will expose me to new ideas, survey and analytical methods as well as scientists with other skills.

Challenges will be numerous, but I suspect that the biggest challenge will be to find researchers with the necessary expertise willing to stay and work in the arid areas with few benefits offered other than the actual research being conducted.

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