#02 2024

Meet EFTEON’s new landscape scientist for meteorology and atmospheric composition

Dr Warren Joubert joined the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network* (EFTEON) in June last year. As EFTEON’s landscape scientist, he is responsible for atmospheric and meteorological observations across the six EFTEON landscapes.

“With some experience in ocean processes, some in atmospheric processes, I am looking forward to enhancing my understanding in the terrestrial domain,” he explains. “The earth system is integrated in a way where the ocean, atmosphere and biosphere all play a role in affecting global climate.”

SAEON eNews spoke to Warren to learn more about his interest in meteorology, his exposure to advanced global research and technological expertise, and the exciting challenges he will be facing in this new position.

As EFTEON’s landscape scientist, Dr Warren Joubert is responsible for the meteorological and atmospheric elements of the programme nationwide, ensuring that the programme is standardised and consistent throughout the network.

Q Please give our readers a concise overview of what your position at EFTEON entails, and where and how it fits into the overall structure of EFTEON? 

EFTEON is a research infrastructure programme, with the ambition to enable long-term environmental monitoring in various landscapes/biomes around South Africa. As landscape scientist, I am responsible for atmospheric and meteorological observations within the landscapes. My work includes the deployment, maintenance, standardisation and calibration of meteorological instrumentation (weather stations), atmospheric composition instrumentation as well as micrometeorological instrumentation, which monitors carbon, moisture and energy fluxes within the landscapes.

Q What attracted you to this key position at EFTEON? 

EFTEON is rolling out environmental monitoring infrastructure at multiple locations around the country. Part of this infrastructure (and equipment) is already located at various national parks around the country, while others are still in the development stage. To be part of the team responsible for building this network of observations is exciting, as I could hopefully contribute to establishing the network long term. In addition, there is a sense of purpose associated with contributing to our collective understanding of how the environment works.

Q Did you have any prior experience of SAEON and its long-term research projects? Will you also be working closely with SAEON nodes such as uLwazi, Egagasini and Elwandle? 

Only in terms of SAEON’s long-term observational ambitions and interacting with multiple researchers on a project basis on ocean science and polar research. My current hopes and ambition are to work very closely with the uLwazi Node through the development of various data products. EFTEON has a suite of data that will have to be transformed into something useful (for students, the public and broader society).

Similarly, I am already collaborating with the Egagasini and Elwandle nodes through various polar and coastal activities, not to exclude the Fynbos, Ndlovu, Arid Lands and Grasslands nodes where EFTEON already have infrastructure deployed.

Q This field of specialisation at EFTEON focuses on the physics and dynamics of the atmosphere as well as on its composition and chemistry. It enables researchers to obtain insight in the functioning of the atmosphere on a range of scales in space and time, for example from daily weather to long-term climate, which aligns with SAEON’s focus on long-term observation and research. This seems a very extensive field to cover; how do you deal with the magnitude of it all? 

It can seem overwhelming, but most challenges can be categorised into manageable chunks that are somehow all connected. And there is a common thread speaking to all the various aspects (space, time, weather and climate). The long term has a time horizon that requires a perspective different from the short-term daily challenges, but if you do the short-term things well, it becomes the building blocks for the long-term perspective. Then, it is not like this is just falling on a single individual’s shoulders, no. We have a team of internal and external collaborators who all play a part in the work.

Q You will be working across all six EFTEON landscapes to quantify and monitor changes over time and integrate these into the broader SAEON context. Where are you based? 

Yes, I’ll be responsible for the meteorological and atmospheric elements of the programme nationwide, ensuring that the programme is standardised and consistent throughout the network. I will be based in the Fynbos Node in Cape Town.

Q To date your career has had a focus around the marine atmospheric interface. What challenges or shifts in perception will you need to work in the terrestrial EFTEON sites? 

The atmosphere is much like the ocean in the sense that it physically behaves like fluid. Its chemistry (particularly of gases) behaves slightly different. In the same way as exchange fluxes at the ocean atmosphere interface, the biosphere interacts with the atmosphere through the exchange of gases between biological material (photosynthesis/respiration). The processes of exchange fluxes are similar, and the quantification of these processes are also relatable. So, the main challenge with the terrestrial environment is figuring out how different vegetation classes behave when exchanging gases with the atmosphere. And I’d say that is an exciting challenge.

Q You will also be responsible for facilitating the day-to-day operations of one of the EFTEON landscapes that will be in your charge. Do you have any previous experience in this kind of management? 

In my previous professional life, I helped to establish a laboratory for ocean carbonate system measurements for the CSIR. Also, I managed the global atmosphere watch laboratory at Cape Point, for the South African Weather Service. These roles exposed me to a swath of responsibilities, of operationally handling highly technical equipment, oversight of technicians and scientists, along with a variety of planning and strategic roles, and at one point managing multiple groups. This history puts me in good stead for the challenges of the daily operations of an EFTEON landscape.

Q Prior to joining EFTEON you were a lead scientist at the South African Weather Service’s Global Atmosphere Watch Programme. What did this entail? What lessons did you learn in this position and at this organisation that could be of value in your new position at EFTEON? 

The Global Atmosphere Watch Programme is an internationally coordinated (by the World Meteorological Organisation, WMO) long-term atmospheric monitoring programme to which South Africa contributes. It is one of roughly 30 stations globally that monitors long-term background concentrations of atmospheric chemicals. These include chemicals such as greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4) and other reactive chemicals and pollutants (such as ozone, chlorofluorocarbons and mercury).

In a similar way, EFTEON has a mandate for long-term observations, although EFTEON expands these observations to the biosphere and hydrosphere. The lessons that can be carried through is the coordinated measurement approach using standardised procedures for long-term observations, to make the network internally consistent. This is probably the highest priority for building the long-term observation network within EFTEON.

Secondly, the collaborative nature of the work is essential to ensure peer-to-peer interaction and learning. A high premium is placed on quality observations, and maintaining high standards of scientific data integrity, which require a tremendous effort to ensure data (and the subsequent interpretation thereof) is not compromised.

Q You have a PhD in Physical Oceanography from the University of Cape Town, for which you investigated surface ocean primary productivity in the Atlantic Southern Ocean using a variety of in situ observation techniques. Did this work give rise to your even wider interest in atmospheric composition, meteorological processes and their role in Earth’s climate? 

I think this is indeed what encouraged the change from ocean to atmospheric observations. The Earth system is integrated in a way where the ocean, atmosphere and biosphere all play a role in affecting global climate. I have some experience in ocean processes, some in atmospheric processes, and now I have the opportunity to enhance my understanding in the terrestrial domain.

Q The use of advanced atmospheric models, observations and data science and data handling is essential to understand the evolution of the atmosphere. You have considerable oceanic research and measurement experience from campaigns undertaken in the Southern Ocean, around the South African coast and the Sub-Antarctic Zone between Cape Town and Antarctica, 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? 

My experience in ocean atmosphere interaction has exposed me to a variety of technological expertise of how we observe nature – from isotopic tracer techniques to quantification of the ocean carbonate system, and automation of observations. All of these require highly technical state-of-the-art measurement techniques which often come at a very high cost (of the equipment, but also of the human effort required to understand and operate these technologies and spotting potential compromised observations).

EFTEON also operates a network of highly technical equipment such as micrometeorological covariance flux measurements, which combines physical and chemical observations of the atmosphere to understand its dynamics. Being exposed to highly technical instrumentation lowers the activation barrier for operating and understanding these instruments and gives me a good idea of what is possible and what limitations various technologies have.

Q In the ever-evolving natural ecosystem in which you are active, how do you ensure that the instruments and operational equipment you and members of your team use are the latest and best possible versions available globally? And how do you maintain these highly sensitive and sophisticated instruments and equipment? 

You need to be continuously aware of the latest developments within your field (and outside) and put in every effort to ensure that your own programme is on par with developments. It does require striking a good balance between the effort of staying up to date with the latest technologies (often at a huge cost), but also stretching the lifespan of older technologies (where possible).

EFTEON’s current infrastructure is on par with the latest advancements in measurement technologies, and the team has a meticulous programme of ensuring the integrity of the data. This includes understanding the equipment, keeping to a regular maintenance schedule, ensuring calibration remains current, and inspecting the data on a regular basis to catch potential problems as they arise.

Q You are a member of the South African National Scientific Committee for Oceanic Research (SCOR), the Ocean-Acidification Africa Network as well as the International Global Atmosphere Chemistry Southern Hemisphere Working Group. How important will these networks and connections be for your new position at EFTEON? 

The first two on this list are mainly ocean communities, and EFTEON is currently focused on the terrestrial domain. That said, there are currently ongoing discussions on how do start quantifying what happens at the ocean-atmosphere-terrestrial interface, particularly at coastal regions and the exchange of carbon at this nexus. The Global Atmosphere Chemistry Southern Hemisphere Group on the other hand, is a global atmospheric chemistry community which remains an important network for exchanging ideas and progress in the field, particularly in the global south where measurements are often sparser than in the north.

Q You’ve been involved in a wide range of projects – from sediment assessment of South African ports and water quality monitoring in Cape Town to an International Polar Year research campaign in the Southern Ocean onboard the RV Marion Dufresne. How did these contribute to your overall skills set? 

Those experiments were basically my training ground for becoming a scientist – from setting out research questions to developing the approach to answer those questions. It has afforded me the opportunity to work on a variety of scientific projects, all with their own intricate details, and laid the foundation for me to become a scientist beyond just the theoretical knowledge, but also the practical skills required to answer scientific questions.

Q You spent a year attending Princeton University Graduate School as a research exchange scholar. You have also presented at international conferences in places as far afield as Chile, Belgium, Morocco, the United States, Korea and China. How will this global exposure benefit your work at EFTEON?      

International exposure provides an excellent opportunity of hearing a diversity/multiplicity of voices and context for your own place (as an African scientist) in the world. It affords the opportunity of building networks, and seeing who does what and how they contribute to advancing the field globally.

Q You’ve been exposed to the impacts of global environmental change during your research on topics such as ocean acidification and in ocean biogeochemistry at the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observatory. Your position at EFTEON calls for experience in inter- and transdisciplinary research for sustainable climate impacts. As we are approaching critical environmental limits – nationally, Africa-wide and globally, what role do you see your work at EFTEON playing in the mitigation of climate risks and climate change? 

To understand the climate impacts on various environments requires a long-term observational platform (such as EFTEON) to see modulations in the environment. EFTEON is ideally suited to have a multidisciplinary approach (atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere, as well as socio-ecological) that will form the backbone of observing long-term trends, and the associated linkages between these seemingly disparate domains.

Q Anything else you’d like to add? 

It is exciting to be part of a team that is establishing this research infrastructure at a national scale.

Q I’ve heard through the grapevine that you are a musician playing in a successful band. Does that leave time for any other hobbies? 

I’m a bass guitar player and primarily plays for the band Zamar. I do play for other bands when the opportunity arises. I am also an enthusiastic cyclist and likes to restore old racing bicycles. I’ve recently taken up craft beer brewing as a hobby, which is showing promise and is starting to place a demand on my free time.  

Q Do you have a personal philosophy that you live by? 

My preferred cliché is that life is wonderful in all its ambiguity. We all do our best to create and extract meaning from it. If I can chart a course in navigating its trajectory while avoiding extreme positions, I’d be happy (or content rather).

* 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.