Experiencing the inaugural Early Career Visiting Scientist program during a global pandemic

By Jacqueline L. Raw

The year 2020 presented an incredible opportunity when I was selected to participate in the IORA Blue Carbon Hub early career visiting scientist program for 8 weeks at the Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre in Perth, Australia. I had proposed a research project to develop restoration plans for mangroves and salt marshes in South Africa with a focus on carbon storage and sequestration.

Credit: Jacqueline Raw

View from our ECR office at the IOMRC. Note the hand sanitizer is an essential desk accessory during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, very soon after our arrival in Perth, my fellow participants (Milica Stankovic from Thailand and Sandaruwan Lahiru from Sri Lanka) and I found ourselves facing the reality of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Despite this, we were enthusiastically welcomed by Mat Vanderklift and Lauren Hardiman from the CSIRO. Their continued support in all aspects beyond the scope of the program has ensured that this experience was still fully worthwhile even under the unconventional circumstances.

Research Overview

My IORA Blue Carbon Hub research project has developed over the course of the program to focus on salt marsh restoration for carbon storage and sequestration under sea-level rise at the Swartkops Estuary in South Africa (33°51’58.481″S, 25°37’58.9619″E). This is an urban estuary that has a nationally high ranking for both biodiversity and economic importance. It is one of the largest estuaries along the warm-temperate region of the South African coastline and supports 209.2 ha of intertidal salt marsh and 338.2 ha of supratidal salt marsh. However, ~ 470 ha of this existing salt marsh is considered to be “disturbed” by human activities, and the current extent of the supratidal salt marsh represents only 33% of the original area (1013.15 ha).

Google Earth satellite imagery of the Redhouse Salt Pans (29-01-2020) showing the dredge spoil barrier (A) and the predicted water level at Mean Tide Level (in dark blue) and at Mean High Water (in light blue) with the barrier intact (B), and with the barrier flattened (C).

The Redhouse Salt Pans site was selected as the focus area for investigating the potential for salt marsh restoration. This area was modified as part of a commercial salt extraction operation in the early 1960s but it became completely desiccated when the salt works abandoned the site in 2019. My preliminary results show that tidal connectivity can be established to some areas of the salt pan if the ~ 12 ha dredge spoil barrier adjacent to the main estuary channel is removed. Once the high tide can extend into the salt pan area, this will allow for the expansion of lower intertidal marsh habitats. This has the potential to increase carbon sequestration for this area by ~ 17% (to 90.52 Mg C).

The next step for this project is to assess sea-level rise vulnerability at the Swartkops Estuary and to determine if restoration of the salt pan area can mitigate some of the anticipated effects. The Sea-Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) is being applied to achieve this. There are three residential areas that are immediately adjacent to the estuary (Amsterdamhoek, Swartkops Village, Redhouse) that are at risk even under conservative sea-level rise estimates (1.82 mm.yr-1, or 0.65 m rise by 2100). Areas that will become suitable for salt marsh under future sea-level will be identified as other potential restoration sites.

I hope that this research will provide valuable new information for local management of the Swartkops Estuary as part of the ongoing collaboration between the Nelson Mandela University, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, the Zwartkops Conservancy, and the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). I also hope that this research approach can be more broadly applied to other regions within the Indian Ocean that have experienced similar pressures.

Program Overview

The IORA Blue Carbon Hub early career visiting scientist program has provided me with an invaluable opportunity. By participating in this program, I was able to fully dedicate my time towards working on the research project that I had proposed. I have been able to develop new skills in spatial analysis using both ArcMap and R and I have learnt new applications with SLAMM. The program strongly promoted developing collaborative partnerships and I was able to receive extensive support from Mat in this regard. I also received valuable input from both Megan Saunders from the CSIRO and Rebecca Runting from the University of Melbourne.

Participating in the program during the Covid-19 pandemic was not without its challenges. Unfortunately, I could not remain in Australia for the entirety of the 8-week program as originally planned, but I was able to continue to work on the project once I was home and under “lockdown” in South Africa. Mat and Lauren ensured that each of the participants made it home safely and they provided us with continuous support even when we were no longer in Australia. They set up a weekly Zoom meeting which helped us to keep in contact, update each other on our ongoing experiences during the pandemic, and to serve as a progress report on our research. It became a highlight of the week for me and it helped to keep my research mostly on track. We were also able to attend several relevant “blue carbon” webinars hosted by the CSIRO over the past few weeks. This really helped me to learn more about ongoing research in other regions of the Indian Ocean and to see the potential applications for projects in South Africa.

The IORA Blue Carbon Hub early career visiting scientist program has greatly benefited my research skills and has particularly helped me to make new connections with experts working on blue carbon in the Indian Ocean. I am especially glad to have had the opportunity to learn from and become friends with both Milica and Lahiru during this program. I am very grateful to have been granted the opportunity to participate in this program, even under the unconventional circumstances. I highly recommend that others apply for this program if it continues in the future.

Jacqueline Raw

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa

Follow Jacqueline’s research on twitter at: https://twitter.com/SAmangroveSci