UCT joins forces with NASA for biodiversity survey

29 July 2021 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Delyth Williams, Pixabay. Read time 8 min.

Regarded as one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region is set to be the subject of a first-of-its-kind biodiversity survey conducted by NASA. The collaborative campaign, dubbed BioSCape, will see scientists from the United States (US) and South Africa working closely together to map marine, freshwater and terrestrial species and ecosystems within the region. Dr Jasper Slingsby, a senior lecturer in Plant Ecology and Global Change Biology at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is part of the project team coordinating the rollout.

“In short, the campaign involves NASA coming over here for six weeks in 2023 with two of their planes and the latest and greatest in sensor technology to capture hyperspectral images of key focal areas within the region,” explains Slingsby. 

Apart from collecting ultraviolet, visual and thermal imagery, the height and structure of vegetation will also be measured using light distance and ranging (LiDAR) technology. Satellites will gather additional data, while teams on the ground will make observations at locations of particular interest, logging plants and any animals they detect.

Using these data, the team will map the region’s biodiversity, providing estimates of the distribution and abundance of species, and the boundaries of ecosystems. Ultimately, the campaign will help scientists understand the structure, function and composition of ecosystems in the study area.

Proposals and partners

When NASA announced its intention of conducting a biodiversity survey and put out the call for proposals back in 2015, Slingsby joined forces with Associate Professor Adam Wilson from the University at Buffalo in the US to develop a proposal focusing on the Greater Cape Floristic Region, including the Fynbos and Succulent Karoo biomes.

 

“Our data will capture this region’s biodiversity in greater detail than ever before from a plane or satellite.”

It was chosen from among a shortlist of 15 proposals and the scope has since been expanded to include adjacent marine and freshwater ecosystems. Dr Erin Hestir from the University of California, Merced will be the principal researcher for this part of the campaign.

The project team will work closely with a number of South African research partners, including the National Research Foundation (NRF), the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the South African National Space Agency (SANSA); as well as conservation partners such as South African National Parks (SANParks) and CapeNature.

“The Greater Cape Floristic Region is a really fascinating place — it has extremely high plant diversity, and there’s been dramatic environmental change over the last 50 years, due to both climate and land use change,” Wilson said in a University at Buffalo press release recently.

“Our data will capture this region’s biodiversity in greater detail than ever before from a plane or satellite. In combination with the field observations, the new data will help us understand this dynamic region and improve our ability to monitor biodiversity from space globally.”

An intersection between biodiversity and imaging technology

What makes BioSCape particularly fascinating is the fact that it facilitates an intersection between two distinct fields of research: biodiversity and imaging technology.

On the one hand, the NASA team will be conducting important research and development around their sensor technology and, on the other, the field teams will be gathering invaluable data from one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.

“Essentially, the ultimate goals are to determine what we can do with this imagery and how useful it will be for mapping and monitoring biodiversity,” says Slingsby.

If the instruments prove to be useful in this regard, the next step would be for NASA to place these imaging sensors onto satellites, which will provide regular imaging at a global scale.

“The goal is not just to track change, but also to highlight where we might need to intervene to improve conservation,” explains Slingsby.

Weather window

Although 2023 seems a long way off right now, the next two years will be crucial for the project team to put all the necessary planning and logistics in place.

“There’s this parallel process of covering the admin side of things – including securing various permits and permissions – as well as refining the science plans and starting to do some of the field data collection, because not all of it needs to happen at the same time as the flights,” says Slingsby.

 

“The goal is not just to track change, but also to highlight where we might need to intervene to improve conservation.”

With only a six-week window period for the flights to take place, the team would also have had to identify specific research questions and focal areas well in advance.

Of course, weather conditions would also need to be considered, as heavy cloud cover and strong winds could affect image quality.

Based on one of Wilson’s previous papers looking at global cloud cover, the team has earmarked late October throughout November as the ideal time for the flights to take place.

“This is also a good time for fynbos phenology, as it coincides with the flowering time,” says Slingsby. 

Opportunity for skills transfer

Although a large-scale international research collaboration such as this one comes with its fair share of challenges, it also brings a host of opportunities for skills and knowledge transfer among researchers.

One of the big challenges on this particular project is the fact that NASA can only fund American researchers, leaving something of a funding gap on the South African side. The project team have, however, made it explicit in funding calls that collaboration with local researchers is essential.

“We’re not interested in parachute science,” says Slingsby. “We want the local community to be involved so that not only the science is better because it’s really addressing local issues, but that there’s skills transfer as well.”

Slingsby added: "Beyond the science, this campaign has great potential to enthuse children and young people about science and our local biota. NASA is a household name that conjures images of rockets and walking on the moon, yet they want to come to the Cape? When most people think of botany or zoology, they don't imagine you could end up working with NASA, but there you are!"

Visit the BioSCape website to find out more. 


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