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Field school introduces students to environmental monitoring
In July this year, the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) co-hosted a field school at Cathedral Peak for 36 third-year Geography students from the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies (GAES) at the University of the Witwatersrand.
The field school was designed as the introduction to a brand new course in Environmental Monitoring and Modelling co-ordinated by Associate Professor Chris Curtis of GAES. The expertise of SAEON staff, plus the platform provided by the experimental catchments and instrumentation managed by SAEON, were ideally suited for a pre-term field trip for this course.
For many of the students it was their first opportunity to visit the Drakensberg and experience the beautiful mountain environment of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and the open-air laboratory that Cathedral Peak provides.
The students participated in a wide range of activities, from stream channel profiling and flow measurement by the Arts and Culture rest camp, to water and soil sampling in two experimental catchments with differing land-use histories. Stream-based activities included group trials of 'citizen science' methods developed by Groundtruth for measurement of water clarity (using the 'clarity tube'), flow (using the succinctly named 'plank') and biomonitoring using miniSASS.
The logistical challenge of transporting more than 40 students and staff up Mike's Pass in 4x4 vehicles provided some excitement for the class, and the views at the top certainly justified the effort. A stop at the top of Mike's Pass allowed Sue van Rensburg, Coordinator of SAEON's Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node, to show the class a wide range of automatic weather station and meteorological instruments.
Heading further uphill to the experimental catchments, Sue demonstrated the function of the hydrological gauging stations (v-notch weirs) and autosamplers and the class got to work sampling the streamwaters and soils for subsequent analysis in the laboratory.
The students were challenged to consider the likely impacts of previous land-use histories on stream solutes and suspended solids transport and carbon storage in upper organic horizons, having sampled a 'control' catchment (CP06, bi-annual burn) and impacted catchment (CP03 previously forested and burned). These samples and questions formed the basis of laboratory practicals to be carried out back at Wits.
Terrestrial vegetation monitoring
On the second day, SAEON led the morning sessions with a lecture and practical demonstration of terrestrial vegetation monitoring techniques by SAEON's Dr Nicole Hagenah and intern Thami Shezi. This was followed by a lively group activity led by Sue van Rensburg in which groups of students were tasked with coming up with a fundable monitoring programme - in 10 minutes!
For the final afternoon, students were given time to work on their data analysis and some opted to visit the Rock Art centre at Didima, being asked to reflect on how the landscape may have changed (or not?) from the days of the San people.
Overall, the field class provided a valuable field-based introduction to environmental monitoring in a great location, and raised awareness of the importance of long-term ecological research in answering crucial questions about global change and conservation management. An early verdict from some of the students was that they were now seriously considering postgraduate studies in this field - surely the best endorsement we could have hoped for!
Chris Curtis, Associate Professor, University of the Witwatersrand