#02 2022

Inaugural SAMC conference signals the beginning of a new mountain socio-ecological perspective

By Sue Janse Van Rensburg, Coordinator, SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node

Mountains can mean different things to different people. They can be extremely harsh ecosystems to inhabit, especially in their upper reaches where species have had to adapt to a diverse array of environmental conditions, but they also support vast agricultural systems in their adjacent lowlands that are vital for human survival.

The importance of mountain regions is highlighted by the fact that they provide half of the world’s human population with water and contain over four-fifths of the globe’s terrestrial biodiversity. In deep time, over the history of biological species, including humans, mountains with their abundant resources have been crucial refuges during times of environmental stress.

Observing the influence of the increasing pressure of humans on mountain ecosystems, their resources and their unique biodiversity will be critical for human society. However, this cannot be done in isolation.

Mountain systems stretch across provincial and international boundaries and, therefore, in addition to their wealth of biological diversity, they contain substantial cultural diversity. They are also a hotspot of interest for many different scientific disciplines. To understand the complex nature of mountains, contributions from many scientific disciples are required to gain an insightful perspective.

Inaugural Southern African Mountain Conference

SAMC 2022 was just that, a diverse group of scientists and practitioners from many different regions, united under the banner of a common interest in mountain socio-ecological systems. Being a South African conference there was a strong representation of southern African countries, but delegates and stakeholders from other continents were also well represented.

This community, for many of whom this was the first ‘large’ conference since the outbreak of COVID-19 two years ago, made good use of the intense networking sessions around the day’s presentation and workshop events. There were over 180 presentations and workshops over the course of the week.

Perspective of Mariepskop and the Hebron Mountains (borrowed from Dr Tony Swemmer’s presentation where NRF-SAEON has been involved with the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region). The photo, which provides a spectacular mountain view, also demonstrates some common global change challenges. The Bracken fern (genus Pteridium) in the foreground of the picture (bottom) is recognised as a global invasive species that in many areas has been expanding its range into grasslands due to fire suppression, overgrazing and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The gum or Eucalyptus trees on the horizon slope on the right of the picture represents a pervasive threat to the biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by mountain systems. Invasive trees are renowned for shading out indigenous grassland biodiversity and are ‘thirsty’ species, which were highlighted as a threat to the water supply of these and other critical mountain catchments in southern Africa.

The conference, held in the northern uKhahlamba Drakensberg, was a definite success and congratulations are in order for the conference organisers – the Afromontane Research Unit of the University of the Free State (ARU) together with the African Mountain Research Foundation (AMRF) and the UN Global Mountain Safeguard Research programme (GLOMOS). NRF-SAEON was well represented at the SAMC and gave a number of presentations (see below). SAEON’s Lindokuhle Dlamini was awarded the prize for the best PhD candidate presentation.

Lindokhule Dlamini won the first SAMC prize for the best PhD presentation. Lindo has been excited to be contributing towards advancing the poorly understood dynamics of soil carbon in fire-driven Drakensberg grasslands.


Intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) session

SAEON took part in a special session organised and supported by the Mountain Research Initiative and GEO Mountains focusing on the theme Long-term monitoring activities and associated data availability for climate change-related applications across Africa’s mountains: The status quo and next steps.

SAEON presented its activities in mountain landscapes and explored opportunities for collaboration and data sharing. SAEON was well recognised as a ‘go-to’ platform for lodging and finding data for South Africa.

GEO Mountains aims to bring together research institutions and mountain observation networks to enhance the discoverability, accessibility and usability of a wide range of relevant data and information pertaining to environmental and socio-economic systems – both in situ and remotely sensed – across global mountain regions”. Readers can explore their General Inventory and are asked to consider completing their Africa Data survey.

Readers can also get involved with GEO Mountains in a number of ways, including registering as an expert, which opens several opportunities. You can also register your mountain observatories on their site by completing THIS form.

Long-term observations in the indigenous grasslands of the Cathedral Peak research catchments have been invaluable for demonstrating the negative influence of both exotic plantations and indigenous woody species encroachment on South Africa’s water resources and biodiversity. This empirical research has major implications and should inform sustainable development in our mountains and promote careful consideration of biome-appropriate restoration.

At the end of the workshop, SAEON received encouraging feedback on both its in situ data collection at its several mountain landscapes, as well as its open data policy and emerging SAEON data portal capabilities.

Data from Cathedral Peak shown at the GEO session demonstrate the value of long-term datasets emerging from SAEON platforms which can be used to assess long-term trends. Here we see rainfall anomalies indicating a potentially drying trend. While the contemporary record is too short to say so definitely, the 2016–2018 drought was more severe in terms of rainfall deficit than all previously recorded droughts for the catchments.

Mean temperature anomaly for Cathedral Peak, presented at the GEO session, indicates a warming trend, as predicted by climate change models.

GMBA – Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment

The Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment aims to provide a platform for “international and cross-disciplinary collaboration on the assessment, conservation and sustainable management of mountain biodiversity”. The purpose of this workshop was to strategise on how mountain biodiversity research could be enhanced in the region and how the GMBA could help facilitate this.

It was also an opportunity for researchers to network and discuss knowledge and data sharing. Presentations highlighted gaps and challenges around biodiversity work in southern African mountains, across different taxonomic groups. South Africa was well represented and could play an important role in contributing to other southern African biodiversity work.

Another NRF-SAEON mountain research site where the influence of global climate change and other influences of humans on biodiversity are being explored. This figure, from Wynand Calitz and colleague’s presentation, taken at the Compassberg in the arid, southern portion of the Great Escarpment, has been of particular interest. Shifts in species composition along altitudinal gradients associated with changes in climate zones are being explored here. Of particular interest are the (C3) grass species in the foreground, which often are greener throughout the dry season compared with other (C4) grasses. These grass communities are known to have migrated with past shifts in climate change, but will they be able to migrate and survive under anthropogenic climate change, and what are the consequences for overall biodiversity and ecosystem functioning? These are some of the questions surrounding the SAEON Arid Land Node’s research at the site.

Some of the main challenges included the need for biodiversity research into understudied regions and taxonomic groups – an exciting prospect for enthusiastic naturalists. The streamlining of processes to enable this type of research was emphasised as a critical bottleneck that needs to be overcome to advance biodiversity research in mountain ecosystems.

Depending on what type of research is being conducted, various ethical and collection permits are required. This can be a tricky process to get right across international borders and even within a single country. Stable curation, that is, care or collected specimens to serve as a reference database, was also identified as a research bottleneck. The proceedings from this discussion are being written up under the leadership of three young scientists who were in attendance.

The workshop provided a good opportunity for SAEON to strengthen their ties with the GMBA, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife who were in attendance. The SAEON platforms in mountain regions across South Africa are proving attractive to local and international biodiversity research scientists interested in long-term observation.

SAEON has established an extensive long-term observation system in the northern uKhahlamba Drakensberg of KwaZulu-Natal. This 3D model, from a presentation by Paul Gordijn, illustrates the importance of mountain ecosystems to humans. The relatively higher rainfall in the mountains, compared with adjacent areas, has made these centres of agricultural production invaluable. This is visible in this image, particularly the commercial agricultural fields in the vicinity of the town, Winterton. Moreover, many subsistence farmers in the region take advantage of lower-lying valleys for dryland agriculture. The rivers labelled in blue are tributaries of the uThugela River, a major river system in KwaZulu-Natal, which facilitates water provision to the Vaal system in the north, hundreds of kilometres away. The high level of habitat destruction in mountain lowlands, and associated disruption of natural ecological processes such as fire, makes lowland biodiversity particularly vulnerable to negative human influences. SAEON and collaborators have been highlighting ways in which this land could be managed to promote the well-being of society and biodiversity. SAEON has established the most extensive field vegetation observation programme in the Drakensberg at this location. The Cathedral Peak research catchments have also been a focus of meteorological work in mountains since around the 1940s in South Africa. The SAMC conference was hosted downstream of the Mdedelelo–Cathkin Peak, in the Sterkspruit River valley.

Hosting of GLOMOS at Cathedral Peak  

As a post-conference trip, SAEON hosted a delegation of researchers from Europe on the Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife–SAEON Cathedral Peak long-term ecological research site (LTER).

The delegation comprised five researchers from the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) (Germany) and Eurac Research (Italy), accompanied by the director of the UNU-EHS and UNU Vice-Rector in Europe, Prof. Shen Xiaomeng. The visiting team represented the Global Mountain Safeguard Research (GLOMOS) initiative, who are establishing a transboundary LTSER site at Mont-aux-Sources in collaboration with SAEON and the University of the Free State. GLOMOS is a collaborative programme and scientific alliance between UNU-EHS and EURAC Research.

The site visit to Cathedral Peak not only provided an opportunity for GLOMOS researchers to learn from local SAEON experts about the long-term monitoring and research in the northern Drakensberg, but also for exchanging knowledge and experience from the LTSER run by EURAC Research in northern Italy. The exchange of knowledge and co-learning covered many aspects from the technical operation of equipment to science outreach.

Opportunities for collaboration and exchange were discussed as the first steps towards an exciting long-term collaboration!  When the SAEON team asked if there was anything we were missing or if we had any blind spots in what we were doing, the reply was, “Yes, you need ten more people to do what you are doing!” This indicates how much the team members are doing with far fewer resources than our European counterparts.

SAEON scientist Dr Michele Toucher (3rd from left) explains how the Cathedral Peak research catchments have strongly impacted on South Africa’s progressive water policy thanks to long-term research on the negative impact of afforestation on water resources. From left: Georg Niedrist, senior researcher, Institute for Alpine Environment, EURAC Research; Stefan Schneiderbauer, head of GLOMOS Bolzano Office, Centre for Global Mountain Safeguard Research (GLOMOS); Dr Michele Toucher, SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node; Prof. Shen Xiaomeng, UNU Vice-Rector in Europe (UNU-ViE) and Director of the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS); Stefano Terzi, postdoc researcher, Institute for Earth Observation, EURAC Research; Jessica Delves, researcher, GLOMOS, EURAC Research; and Jӧrg Szarzynski, head of the GLOMOS Bonn Office, UNU-EHS.

The success of the Southern African Mountain Conference will continue to draw the attention of mountain scientists. We look forward to the next SAMC event, and in the interim, the strengthening of research ties across local and international borders. Thanks again to the Afromontane Research Unit of the University of the Free State for organising the successful event.

NRF-SAEON/EFTEON presentations

  • Calitz, Wynand (2022) Investigating the C3 and C4 grass dynamic along an elevation gradient on the Compassberg Mountain in the Great Escarpment.
  • Dlamini, Lindokuhle (2022) Fire-driven grasslands are more important for soil carbon storage than forest in montane summer rainfall regions, Cathedral Peak, South Africa (4179). Won best PhD presentation. 
  • Doarsamy, Sachin (2022) Fire regime and environmental determinants of shrub encroachment in pristine Drakensberg grasslands (4216).
  • Feig, Gregor (2022) The Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON): Development of research infrastructure in the Northern Drakensberg region (4178).
  • Gordijn, Paul (2022) Multidecadal effects of fire in a grassland biodiversity hotspot: does pyrodiversity enhance plant diversity? (1415).
  • Gordijn, Paul (2022) The ‘eco-story’ of a mountain range: The development of socio-ecological disturbance regimes in the northern Drakensberg and consequences for biodiversity (4148).
  • Harrison, Rowena (2022) Using hydropedological characteristics to improve modelling accuracy in Afromontane catchments (1074).
  • Swemmer, Tony (2022) What happens when forestry goes? Vegetation dynamics following abandonment of plantations and return of fire, on Mariepskop Mountain, South Africa (4189).
  • te Beest, Mariska (2022) Grass functional trait responses to experimental warming and fire in Afromontane grasslands (1088).
  • Thompson, Dave (2022) Mountain watch: How long-term research is safeguarding southern Africa’s people and biodiversity for a sustainable mountain future. The presentation was delivered by co-author Carbutt, Clinton (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife).
  • Toucher, Michele (2022) Determining the influence of fire on the hydrological processes of the Cathedral Peak research catchments, Northern Drakensberg, South Africa (1059).