#04 2021

My extraordinary first year as a SAEON postdoctoral fellow in a time of Covid-19

By Kuda Musengi, Arid Lands Node (SAEON@SKA postdoc)

I was very excited to start my journey as a SAEON postdoctoral fellow 15 months ago. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic had just started. The pandemic was to shake up research institutions globally, forcing many of these institutions to remain closed temporarily and severely restricting data collection time in the field. 

Working from home became the norm and I got to meet my new colleagues at SAEON’s Arid Lands Node online. I started working my way through the available information on the core area of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, exploring different research themes in this new study area and focusing on conducting soil moisture experiments as the SKA is located in an area that has experienced severe drought for six years.

I had never been to the Karoo before and had to look at literature on this biome and other arid regions to familiarise myself with the arid lands that would be the focus of my study. I reviewed methodologies of experimental droughts using rainout shelters and rain addition structures.

I also explored potential artefacts related to precipitation experiments and their causes, consequences and potential solutions. In the second month of level 1 lockdown, I started developing possible designs for manipulating soil moisture levels using rainout shelters and rain addition shelters. A whole range of factors need to be considered when designing the size and exact location of the rain manipulation plots.

It was difficult for me to develop the designs as I had never been to the Karoo before and had to rely on my imagination. I managed to write a research project proposal on the effects of drought on ecosystem structure and function in the core area of the SKA and other proposed sites.

Working on the proposal distracted me from focusing on the bad news of the pandemic that had become the norm. During this tough time, and just before he retired, the former manager of the Arid Lands Node, Dr Joh Henschel, introduced me to the European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative (ESA CCI) platform.  

European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative soil moisture data: A panacea in the Covid-19 crisis  

ESA CCI currently provides many decades of global satellite-observed, fully homogenised soil moisture data representative of the first few centimetres of soil (~0–5 cm). I started reading up on ESA CCI soil moisture data and downloaded over five gigabytes of soil moisture datasets for the Karoo from 1973 to 2019.

The ESA CCI soil moisture data are provided as NC files and we initially did not know how to open the files. A SAEON intern, Buster Mogonong, helped us gain insight into the nature of the data using other software, but this was cumbersome and not useful for browsing through many files to see at what spatial and temporal resolution we wished to analyse.

Buster and I subsequently discovered another way to open the files using R statistical software packages. I then conducted a preliminary study on the temporal variation patterns of soil moisture at different locations in the Northern Cape.

This remotely sensed ESA CCI data enabled me to conduct analyses during the pandemic when in-situ monitoring was constrained. Our ongoing study allows validation studies to be conducted for the ESA CCI soil moisture product against in-situ measurements in the Karoo.

Research and development   

Due to its location in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, the Arid Lands Node offers many opportunities to conduct research and observations relating to global change as well as land use and land cover change in the Arid Savanna, Nama Karoo and Grassland biomes. It is a valuable experience to interact with and learn from the rest of the staff.

The node has six focal sites: Tierberg, Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute, the Nama Karoo – SKA, Namaqualand, Benfontein and the Kalahari. I could not wait to go out into the field. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to visit Benfontein, Tierberg and the SKA.

We had a field recce at the SKA to assess the conditions, as reports were indicating that little rain had been received and this hinders identification of plants in the field. The recce helped us to determine if conditions were acceptable for us to conduct the planned veld condition assessments using line transects.

We also conducted phenology measurements at the Tierberg LTER site. During our field visits at the SKA and Tierberg we examined the field conditions to determine what we needed to take into consideration when building the rainout/add shelters for the rain manipulation experiments. The strong winds we experienced in the field got me thinking how strong winds could affect the roofing material of the rainout shelters if the material was not strong enough.

From the moment I arrived in Kimberley and met the Arid Lands Node team I felt that I was part of the team. I have been learning a lot and continue to be exposed to a wide range of scientific aspects through virtual conferences and meetings such as the Arid Zone Ecology Forum, Grassland Society of Southern Africa and Northern Cape provincial SKA/Meerkat working group meeting.

As an early career scientist, I look forward to maturing as a scientist and expanding my skills set and expertise at the node.

The core area of the Square Kilometre Array telescope, which comprises some 130 000 hectares and will be managed as the Meerkat National Park and a science park for astronomy and ecology.

Arid Lands Node postdoctoral fellow Kuda Musengi (left) and PhD student Amukelani Maluleke at the flux tower in Benfontein Nature Reserve.

Ready to start phenology measurements for the first time at Tierberg LTER.

Meeting the Arid Lands Node team for the first time in Kimberley. From right: Helga Van der Merwe, Wynand Calitz, Amukelani Maluleke, Buster Mogonong, former node manager Joh Henschel, Kuda Musengi, Tshililo Ramaswiela and Joanne Riet.