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Houston, we have a fynbos problem: Nasa flies to rescue of Cape's natural treasures

Adam Wilson walks through fynbos ahead of his 2023 collaboration with Nasa to monitor the greater Cape floristic region's biodiversity.
Adam Wilson walks through fynbos ahead of his 2023 collaboration with Nasa to monitor the greater Cape floristic region's biodiversity.
Image: Adam Wilson

Think of Nasa and the images that spring to mind are probably rocket launches or the International Space Station. Certainly not fynbos.

But in 2023, the US space administration plans to spend six weeks — and about R12.4m — flying planes over the “greater Cape floristic region” to map marine, freshwater and terrestrial species and ecosystems in one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots.

Equipment on the planes will measure the height and structure of vegetation and collect ultraviolet, visual, thermal and other imagery from terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Satellites will gather additional data.

SA and US teams on the ground will make observations at locations of particular interest, logging plants and possibly animals.

The data gathered will be used to map the south-western Cape's biodiversity, providing estimates of the distribution and abundance of species and the boundaries of ecosystems, and researching how biodiversity affects the physical environment and vice versa.

A Cape sugarbird in the fynbos of the greater Cape floristic region.
A Cape sugarbird in the fynbos of the greater Cape floristic region.
Image: Adam Wilson

“This is a broad collaboration between several organisations,” said principal investigator Adam Wilson, a biogeographer at the University at Buffalo.

“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.

“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, these new data will help us understand this dynamic region and improve our ability to monitor biodiversity from space globally.”

The project — titled “Marine, Freshwater, and Terrestrial Biodiversity Survey of the Cape (BioSCape)” — is funded by Nasa. Wilson's team will get $873,000 (about R12.4m) to complete their share of the work.

Jasper Slingsby from the University of Cape Town.
Jasper Slingsby from the University of Cape Town.
Image: Twitter/Saeon

The leadership team includes Jasper Slingsby from the University of Cape Town, Glenn Moncrieff from the SA Environmental Observation Network and Erin Hestir from the University of California, Merced.

Institutional partners include the SA National Biodiversity Institute, SA National Parks, CapeNature and the SA National Space Agency.

“Much of the research in Earth observation has been conducted in the world’s forested ecosystems, like the Amazon or northern temperate forests,” said Moncrieff.

“But non-forest ecosystems harbour a substantial proportion of the world’s biological diversity, and perhaps the most diverse of these non-forest ecosystems are the shrub lands of the greater Cape floristic region.

“BioSCape will bring the most advanced Nasa remote-sensing technology to this region, facilitating a large amount of research into remote sensing of biodiversity beyond the forest edge.

“We hope that by mapping plant biodiversity and its function, we will be able to show the link between important ecosystem services that many people here depend upon and the unique flora of the region.”

Slingsby said BioSCape would boost the use of remote sensing in the region and innovation in remote sensing of biodiversity in general.

“The shrub land ecosystems in the region are hyperdiverse and have complex spatial and temporal natural dynamics due to fire, seasonality and habitat heterogeneity, and will really put the science teams to the test. The aquatic ecosystems will be no less challenging,” he said.

A king protea flower in the greater Cape floristic region.
A king protea flower in the greater Cape floristic region.
Image: Adam Wilson

Hestir said the sixth great extinction in Earth's history was driving unprecedented rates of species loss.

“Understanding the diversity of life, what drives it and how it might change in the future is critical to maintaining and protecting life on Earth — for us and all creatures,” she said.

In a separate but related project, Wilson and a team including some of the same partners are developing a tool that uses satellite remote sensing and artificial intelligence to monitor ecosystems in the Cape floristic region.

The goal is to detect fires, land-clearing, the spread of invasive plant species and other unusual damage to vegetation.

The R6.8m effort is also funded by Nasa and Wilson said: “The idea is to create a decision-support tool that can support monitoring and management of biodiversity.

“The system will flag unusual ecosystem changes, such as invasive species outcompeting native species, or land cover change in protected areas, so that teams on the ground can then go check it out to learn more about what’s happening.”

TimesLIVE

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