#02 2020

Leaves to landscapes – Fynbos Node career day exhibit

By Abri de Buys and Dr Martina Treurnicht, SAEON Fynbos Node

Challenge: Describe what your organisation does, what types of careers can be pursued and what you need to study in order to get involved in your field.

Do this in 12 minutes while allowing time for questions and avoid PowerPoint-induced boredom by making it interactive.

Try to light a spark that will ignite the interest of the next generation of environmental researchers.

This is the task SAEON’s Fynbos Node faced at the recent annual career day for grade 10 learners run by our hosts, SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute) at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Water comes from mountain catchments and this is how – Nasiphi Ntshanga (Fynbos Node PhD candidate) and Dr Robert Skelton (postdoctoral researcher) explain the movement of water through a catchment area using a simple catchment model and a rainfall simulator (Photo: SAEON Fynbos Node)

Measuring weather conditions and vegetation characteristics help us understand how these features of the landscape interact. Here Dr Robert Skelton explains how plant traits and plant water use are linked (Photo: Jasper Slingsby)

Fluctuations in the greenness of vegetation and change over time can be seen from space using satellite images. Scientists use these and other images to understand what happens at large spatial scales, explains Fynbos Node postdoctoral researcher, Dr Julia Glenday (Photo: Jasper Slingsby)

So, what do we do at the SAEON Fynbos Node?

Well, we monitor water catchments, measure soil moisture, look at satellite images, write articles to inform the public, identify plants, talk to land managers, collect weather data, detect vegetation change, measure streams, present at conferences, study how vegetation recovers from fire, analyse data, detect when plants get damaged by drought, programme data loggers, share data, create websites, build monitoring instruments, write code, work in the field, order equipment, write scientific papers, provide information for policymakers, read scientific and technical literature, manage assets and budgets, model biome shifts…in short, enough to make your head explode in 12 minutes.

But, you may ask, why do we do all this and how are all these tasks related? 

Bring out the props

Following successful exhibits in previous years where a miniature mountain catchment (model) and a fully automated weather station were popular, we expanded on it for this year’s exhibit by adding a plant garden consisting of species with different structures as well as a display of satellite images that showed how vegetation ‘greenness’ varies over time. The expanded exhibit allowed us to showcase most of the Fynbos Node team’s fields of expertise.

We used the catchment model with a simple rainfall simulator and different patches of “vegetation” (using layers of sponge to represent vegetation) to illustrate how the hydrological cycle and vegetation interact to influence how much water our dams receive. This is very handy to demonstrate how vegetated surfaces behave differently than impervious surfaces like parking lots and raise awareness of some of the impacts of land cover change.

The concept of fast vs slow runoff is also used to touch on issues such as seasonality (why do streams continue to flow even during the dry season?) as well as flood risk. We thus demonstrate why people’s activities in catchments matter, what some of the impacts downstream may be, why it’s important to understand catchment processes and how these may change in future.

In order to understand how weather patterns, vegetation and various other features of a catchment influence water runoff, it’s essential to get some real numbers that quantify what’s happening in different parts of the system. One tool we use to collect data is automated weather stations.

We explained what the different sensors measure, how the data logger works and that solar panels supply power to the station. We also mentioned that weather stations and other monitoring equipment are quite costly but well designed and can last for years in pretty severe weather conditions.

Learners were then guided to the plant garden where water demand/use was briefly explained and related to what happens at catchment scale when changes in the dominant types of plants occur. Here we discussed how plants transpire when they take up CO2 and how long-term monitoring has shown big exotic trees to be thirstier than indigenous fynbos.

Plants with large leaf surfaces and many leaves were compared to fine-leaved species and species with fewer leaves and learners were asked to consider how these traits might affect water use. We also looked at wilted/drought-damaged plants compared to healthy ones and discussed how much water they might require.

Moving on to the satellite image display, we showed seasonal changes in the greenness of vegetation across the African continent and pointed out how this is also visible around the southern tip where the fire-prone fynbos biome is located.  A post-fire recovery photo time lapse was included to demonstrate a burnt site greening up over the course of a few months after fire.

We briefly discussed how satellite images and remote sensing help us to extrapolate our local measurements, taken with monitoring instruments and vegetation surveys, to coarser scales such as catchments.

Careers at SAEON

As can be deduced from the dizzying array of tasks and activities mentioned above, a team of people with diverse skills and expertise is required to monitor long-term changes in the environment.

This includes people who are qualified and experienced in various scientific fields as well as being familiar with environmental and socio-economic issues to be able to ask and answer relevant questions. It includes people who know how to operate the millions of Rands’ worth of equipment to obtain high-quality data that can be used to produce evidence-based solutions to pressing environmental concerns of our time.

It also includes people who are skilled to make sure money is spent effectively, following all the procedures required for using public money transparently. It requires people who can think strategically and collaborate with others to get the best “bang” for the taxpayer “buck” or apply the same skills to plan a successful field trip to a remote area.

Some tasks are exhilarating and fascinating and some are deathly boring and tedious. Most careers include a bit of both. You can be involved if you like staying indoors writing computer code or analysing data. You can be involved if you like to drive a 4×4 in the mountains. You can spend days on end reading interesting scientific literature or you can be out in nature for weeks at a time doing vegetation surveys. You can present research results at an international conference or build the instruments that collect the data underlying that research…or you could do all the above plus more!

While studies in fields such as hydrology, meteorology, ecology, botany, zoology, conservation biology, biogeochemistry, computer science, ecological modelling, data science, computational thinking, etc. are obviously relevant, each team member typically has their own specific career path. A common thread is an interest in the environment and a passion to apply your skills towards helping people interact with their environment in a sustainable, safe way.