#02 2023

Landscape scientist brings crucial experience and skills to EFTEON

Dr Kathleen Smart joined the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network* (EFTEON) in July last year. Active across six EFTEON landscapes, but based in the Northern Drakensberg, there are two distinct aspects to her position. As a landscape scientist, she oversees the deployment of the interdisciplinary monitoring techniques with the help of a team of three technicians. As the EFTEON biogeochemist, she monitors the fluxes of energy and matter in six very different landscapes.

Kathleen describes her new position as “an incredible opportunity to track the source, fate and consequences of different inputs and disturbances to our environment”.

SAEON eNews caught up with Kathleen amid her hectic programme to learn more about her interest in biogeochemistry and her exposure to global research and the challenges she will be facing in this new position.

Kathleen’s first published work was a scientific assessment on elephant management, which she credits for graduating her into systems thinking.

As a landscape scientist, Kathleen oversees the deployment of the interdisciplinary monitoring techniques with the help of a team of technicians.

Q  Biogeochemistry is a relatively new scientific discipline that is intersectional between environmental chemistry, ecology and other disciplines. When and how did your interest in this novel and specialised field start? 

My interest certainly began during my undergraduate training, with courses on Functional Ecology and Global Change. The lecturers at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) exposed me to the ability as well as the need to quantify ecological processes, how that information can be used to describe and detect changes in system behaviour, and how it can be leveraged into a variety of decision-shaping discussions.

Q  What attracted you to this key position at EFTEON*? 

Foremost is the systemic view that EFTEON has of the environment; acknowledging the interconnected nature of variables we are interested in, and that society is part of the system and requires/deserves the same focus as biophysical, biochemical and biodiversity elements.

The position presents an incredible opportunity to track the source, fate and consequences of different inputs and disturbances to our environment. And of course, the approaches to take these measurements are hugely varied and interesting in and of themselves.

EFTEON is creating a platform to undertake robust science that is important, creative and inclusive. The chance to combine and compare different approaches, across different landscapes, to see the data accumulate, to share it and then to witness the deeper and larger social ecological insights that others will build using the data – it is a golden opportunity.

That this position has me tackling these goals with students and other researchers is a real cherry on top of a giant cake. I have always been inspired by the research community in South Africa, and this gives me a chance to work with a wider swath of people.

Every day is different. And each day I’m learning something new and contributing to something long term. I cannot think of a better way to spend my time.

Q  Did you have any prior experience of SAEON and its research projects? 

I have met several different node staff and students over time. I’ve seen SAEON work at conferences and workshops. When possible, I would invite SAEON colleagues to share their work as guest speakers on undergraduate and postgraduate courses I have coordinated. I felt they always struck the right balance of novel and applied science. I have also submitted collaborative funding proposals with SAEON, but aside from that, I have not formally worked with the organisation.

Q  Please give our readers a concise overview of what your position at EFTEON entails. 

There are two major aspects to my position, one tied to the discipline (biogeochemistry and ecology) and the other tied to the position (landscape scientist).

As a landscape scientist I will oversee and be part of the deployment of all the interdisciplinary monitoring techniques. I will do that with the help of a team of three technicians who have a focus on instruments, biodiversity and social-ecological systems respectively.

As the EFTEON biogeochemist, I think about how to monitor the fluxes of energy and matter (carbon, nitrogen and water, for example) in six very different landscapes. The overarching question is how to tailor techniques to different biomes and different cases of systemic change while remaining comparable.

I will guide the way forward for monitoring in all the landscapes, some will be standardised approaches, and some techniques which will be unique to a landscape. These unique approaches will be realised in collaboration with researchers using the EFTEON landscapes as research platforms.

Q  You will be working across all six EFTEON landscapes, but where will you be based? And why? 

I chose to be in the Northern Drakensberg landscape, and I currently work out of the Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife and NRF-SAEON offices in Pietermaritzburg. I chose this landscape partly because of the strong Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node. I have worked with Michele Toucher and Sue van Rensburg before, so I knew I would have a good team to work with.

The landscape contains the source of one of the most important South African rivers, and the tributaries create a transect from mountain to ocean. The west-east transect really does present an “experimental landscape” – it contains the major land-use types in South Africa and is interesting with respect to plant physiology (there is a transition from C3 to C4 grasses in the higher altitudes, and from grassland to savanna biomes) and sprinkled across the landscape are invasive alien species, soil erosion and woody thickening.

In addition, most of the maternal side of my family live in KwaZulu-Natal. I have a young son, and the move was an opportunity for him (and me) to have more regular contact with them.

Kathleen is based in the Northern Drakensberg landscape, which contains the source of one of the most important South African rivers, the tributaries of which create a transect from mountain to ocean. The west-east transect presents an “experimental landscape” – it contains the major land-use types in South Africa and is interesting with respect to plant physiology. (Photos: Sachin Doarsamy)

Q  You have a PhD in Ecology from Wits. You have considerable measurement experience from your time at Rhodes University as well as operational experience in observational infrastructure. How do you see this science-technology interface you’ve been exposed to being of benefit to your work in your new position? 

Being comfortable with technology is essential for taking up this position. One of the major challenges in ecosystem ecology is scaling work from fine to broader scales, and technology gives us the power to make repeated observations at different scales and with the appropriate levels of accuracy. So, I have always viewed technology as a tool to be used, be it satellite data, or modelling on a computer or a hand-held instrument.

But it is the eddy covariance measurement technique which is key for this role. Eddy covariance, or flux work, forms the core of the biogeochemistry role, and it provides data at a scale which is crucial for ecological scaling.

Because infrastructure is costly to establish and maintain, there is also a dearth of people with appropriate exposure and experience. Working with the Skukuza flux tower while I was at the CSIR and going on to set up two towers with Tony Palmer at Rhodes University, gave me this rare opportunity.

Q  You’ve attended skills development workshops in places such as Australia and Sicily. How will this exposure to global skills benefit your work at EFTEON? 

There are several international instrument standards and data protocols that EFTEON must be compliant with to be competitive and to provide data that can be compared to our sister observation networks. These have developed in the international community of practice (CoP), and it was at these workshops where I was first exposed to the leaders of these communities (the likes of Dennis Baldocchi of FLUXNET, Gordan Bonan who runs the NCAR Land Surface Model, and Werner Kutsch, who is now the head of ICOS).

This exposure taught me a lot of things (you can learn an incredible amount in a few days!), the most important of which is that a single face-to-face conversation can create a sense of community and go on to give you the confidence to reach out to people with questions or for guidance. More than anything academic, it will be this exposure and the confidence I gained that I will bring to EFTEON.

Q  You are expected to contribute to the micro site selection process and community engagement for the Biogeochemical component of the EFTEON programme, for both freshwater and terrestrial observations. How will you approach that to make sure all stakeholders are consulted and to get stakeholder buy-in? 

I find the commitment to stakeholder engagement one of the strongest elements of the EFTEON undertaking, and one I take very seriously. EFTEON cannot be successful without buy-in to the process and support for the science.

Within the Northern Drakensberg landscape my approach has been to have conversations. To go to meetings, to be in the landscape, and to meet people there. That has led to meetings with farming clubs and managers of protected areas. EFTEON is now a proud member of the Northern Drakensberg Collaborative (NDC), a new partnership with the Institute for Natural Resources, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), WILDTRUST, University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Mahlathini Development Foundation.

Another facet to stakeholder engagement is being accountable to a committee comprised of South African researchers. These committee members are drawn from various institutions, and they provide technical guidance on best practice as well as insights into new and emerging themes in their research domains. They also extend the reach of EFTEON by committing to engage with their respective CoPs on behalf of EFTEON.

Q  You list global environmental change as one of your research interests. You’ve also been an ad hoc consultant for the IUCN Climate Change Specialist Group from 2015 onwards. As we are approaching critical environmental limits – nationally, Africa-wide and globally, what role do you see your work at EFTEON playing in the prevention and mitigation of climate risks and climate change? 

The term Anthropocene, used to describe the human impact on the functioning of the Earth System, was becoming accepted by academic and research communities as I began my undergraduate studies at university; it was foundational in all my training. Throughout my career the idea has been increasingly mainstreamed. I don’t think I would have taken the position if I did not think EFTEON had a role to fill with respect to global change.

The core measurements of the EFTEON biogeochemistry domain are carbon dioxide concentrations and movement, temperature and rainfall. These observations are primary lines of evidence for changes and trends in the Earth system. Indeed, I would say that a keystone contribution of EFTEON is a body of data which can be used to better describe our ecosystems and thereafter to defining thresholds of concern and changes in system behaviour.

The observational database will be a major contribution to South Africa’s climate modelling efforts and will make a tangible impact at the very highest levels of policy negotiation. At the same time, the embedded nature of EFTEON means that we will have the opportunity to detect changes in human wellbeing in response to mitigation interventions undertaken in EFTEON landscapes.

Q  Your first published work was a scientific assessment on elephant management. How did this work influence your later career development into the vegetation/climate feedback space?  

This was a pivotal time in my career, and I’ll speak to four reasons why.

  1. Working on the elephant assessment graduated me into systems thinking. In the assessment process I saw the same questions approached from very different perspectives, and the constant the awareness of the role we as humans had in creating the conditions we face, and a very real concern about the consequences of actions AND no actions.
  2. I learnt that it takes more than the need to solve a problem to work effectively in an interdisciplinary space – it takes courage. Working out of your comfort zone is important, and communicating in different ways to different people are key ingredients to success. We each know a little slice of the pie, so to speak. Participants came into the space knowing a lot about some things, but not everything, and they had to not only be willing to share their knowledge but also to be vulnerable – to speak out when something was unknown or unclear. It showed me that pinning down what we do not know is often more valuable than what we do know.
  3. Understanding social values associated with any science we undertake is critical – and hard to grapple with! If we don’t know what we value, we cannot understand, study or protect it. Without this our scientific data has little relevance. “Relevance” is not an inherent property of the data, but rather something that needs to be created through conversation and engagement.
  4. This was my first opportunity to work with the late Professor Bob Scholes. It exposed me to a rich and varied way of seeing the world, and I will always be deeply grateful for that.

Q  Much of your recent work has been in the thicket biome. With your EFTEON appointment in the Northern Drakensberg, what are your thoughts on shifting your focus to grassy systems? 

I will miss seeing the thicket every day, the landscapes have such a complex vegetation structure, which I find so uniquely beautiful.  While I won’t be able to focus as much of my time on the thicket, it has not seen the last of me! I remain on the organising committee for the biome meeting, the Thicket Forum.

Regarding the shift in focus to grassy systems, I am excited about working in such classic and widespread African biomes, of providing more data to accurately map and describe these systems in the international academic and research communities. These are systems I was trained in at university, so it feels like a homecoming of sorts.

Q  You obviously have a hectic schedule. Does that leave any time for hobbies? If yes, what are these? 

I am a voracious reader and that has never changed. What has changed is the scale of my hobbies – instead of travelling for extended periods of time to different countries, I now take weekend breaks to different parts of South Africa.

Q  Do you have a mantra that you live by? 

There is nothing I cleave closely to. I have invoked “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (which is ascribed to Gandhi) and a phrase from Annie Dillard “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

* The Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) is a research infrastructure that has been developed under the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) programme. EFTEON is intended to provide a platform of well-instrumented landscapes to the South African and international research community, to facilitate research into global change, ecosystem processes and social-ecological interactions. It will provide data for remote sensing as well as model validation and calibration.