NASA is coming to the Western Cape

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The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is preparing to conduct a first-of-its-kind biodiversity field campaign in the Western Cape by sending two modified jets to Cape Town.

In conjunction with the University of Cape Town (UCT), the campaign will incorporate airborne imaging spectroscopy, lidar and field observations across South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region (GCFR), including surrounding coastal and marine environments.

The collaborative campaign, dubbed BioSCape, will see scientists from the United States and South Africa working closely together to map marine, freshwater and terrestrial species and ecosystems within the region.

Arriving in Cape Town this week will be a NASA Gulfstream III and possibly a Gulfstream V in support of the BioSCape programme.

After two years of planning, the aircraft will fly low level over the west and southern Cape over a period of four to six weeks, collecting ultraviolet, visual and thermal imagery. The height and structure of vegetation will also be measured using light distance and ranging (LiDAR) technology.

The GCFR contains two Global Biodiversity Hotspots with the richest temperate flora and the third-highest marine endemism in the world. The field campaign includes a collection of new hyperspectral data ranging from UV to thermal wavelengths acquired by PRISM, AVIRIS-NG and HyTES spectrometers combined with the LVIS laser altimeter aboard the NASA Gulstream III and Gulfstream V aircraft.

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 this 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.

With only a six-week window period for the flights to take place, the team needed to consider the Cape’s fickle weather conditions, as heavy cloud cover and strong winds could affect image quality. The team earmarked late October throughout November as the ideal time for the flights to take place.

“This,” said Dr Jasper Slingsby, a senior lecturer in Plant Ecology and Global Change Biology at UCT, “is also a good time for fynbos phenology, as it coincides with the flowering time.”

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.