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Reporting on the October 2017 meeting of the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER)

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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Our application for membership of ILTER, the global ‘mother’ of SAEON, was approved as far back as 2002.

Six years earlier I was approached by Jim Gosz, then Chair of ILTER, with the suggestion that South Africa should launch a national LTER network.

With the support of the research community and the Foundation for Research Development (now NRF), the Director-General of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (now DST), Dr Rob Adam (now Managing Director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory - SARAO), endorsed the establishment of SAEON as of 2002. In the years that followed, SAEON grew in stature and became a leading member of the ILTER, as demonstrated by our initiation and hosting of the successful First ILTER Open Science Meeting in the Kruger National Park last year.

ILTER holds regular telecon meetings throughout the year, but once a year it is time for a physical meeting in one of the member countries. Wim Hugo, SAEON’s Chief Data and Information Officer and I attended his year’s meeting, which was hosted by France in the city of Nantes.

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SAEON MD Johan Pauw reports on the results of a breakaway group for the ILTER strategic planning process (Picture: Herbert Haubold)

Wim Hugo, SAEON’s Chief Data and Information Officer, presents his vision for ILTER network services at the global level (Picture: Johan Pauw)

Strategic thinking in breakaway groups (Picture: Johan Pauw)                                                                                                               

Notes from selected science papers

The French, through their Zone Ateliers Network which is funded by the CNRS (a science council in France), organised a scientific conference prior to the ILTER meeting which I managed to attend. The programme can be found at:

Many of the talks focused on the human dynamics of ecological change and vice versa. In ILTER, the LTSER (Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research) approach has been adopted by some 12% of its nearly 700 sites. Without a long-term approach, socio-ecological research will not be able to comprehend change. The notion that it is important to understand why humans do what they do was also put forward as a global research question in relation to SES (Social-Ecological Systems).

In his insightful paper, Daniel Orenstein of Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), made three key key points about how ecologists engage with society:

  • Ecologists’ values are unique among the general public.
  • Ecologists are not always good at communicating with the public.
  • Ecologists are not the only people influencing environmental policy.

In his research he established some profound differences between lay people and ecologists. His method was to interact with discussion groups by showing them pictures and encouraging them to discuss what they like and do not like.

He found that different people like nature and define nature in different terms, for instance in terms of “that’s a great place for me and my family”, or “that’s a place to meet people”. They mostly judged landscapes as a backdrop to their cultural practices.

He therefore opines that people like landscapes in a holistic sense and have a low ecological literacy (e.g. they do not connect biodiversity to ecosystem services). That said, there are distinct differences between population groups depending on their value systems, but less so on their demographic classification.

Conversely, ecologists look at places to get away from people and their first management option is to get people out! In terms of policy and management, compromises must be found in the middle ground between ecological knowledge and public preference – the so-called “sustainable landscape”.

Based on her study into people’s appreciation of ecosystem services at the Montado LTER site, Magarida Santos-Reiss reported that they like those in the following order: Regulatory, Provisional and Cultural. This seems to contradict the findings of Orenstein that people have little understanding of ecosystem services other than as satisfying their immediate cultural needs. Longer-term studies may clarify the basis of these different findings, which could probably be explained by years of public engagement at the Montado LTER site.

LTSER research in the French Alps by the University of Grenoble shed some light on the adaptation process of societies to environment and global change. They found, among other things, a strong decrease in the number of ski resorts. Adaption was therefore a fast and dynamic response to climate warming. Given the speed of change, they are determined to build future scenarios based on past and present dynamics. For this they include basic socio-economic variables such as wealth. Their hydrometeorological stations are accompanied by biodiversity observatories, and they would like to study atmospheric composition by means of co-eddy variance instruments, but are unable to do so at present. Through their research platform, they are able to study tipping points (extreme events), directional change trajectories and build participative observations. They seem to be an ideal partner for SAEON’s Cathedral Peak LTER.

From a natural sciences perspective, the scientific papers put much emphasis on the importance of soil studies and the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) approach was promoted. The CZO studies range from the soil surface to the bedrock and describe the top layer of Earth as a “soil reactor” by developing computational models of soil structure dynamics. This research approach can easily be adopted to add value to existing LTER sites

A talk was presented by the USA National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) to offer their thinking about combining observation and experimentation. They emphasised that global change research is essential to reduce disaster risks. For this, tools are required for both observation and experimentation.

The design of such research is informed by a matrix of controllability versus uncertainty. Observations allow monitoring of the status of an ecosystem over time, but given that the system is not linear, it also requires an experimental approach. They opined that it would be misguided to advocate for experimental research infrastractures only, given that when existing research infrastructures are made to be interoperable, it would fast track the answering of global research questions. In summary they proposed the following procedural steps: Theory - observation - co-design of experimentation - analytical - model - synthesis - improve theory - observation - continued.

The International Nitrogen Management System (INMS) stated that, globally, total nitrogen emissions have been increasing strongly since 1940. Whereas nitrogen is instrumental in feeding people, its application has many unintended consequences such as acidification of soils, water and air quality, causing dead zones, changes in plant biodiversity and adding to ozone depletion. Accordingly there are environmental costs, human health costs and economic losses as a result of nitrogen application.

In the USA farmers waste 50% of nitrogen fertiliser; in the rest of the world nitrogen fertilising efficiency is somewhat better at 70%. The INMS mission is to improve efficiency and minimise harm to humans and the environment such that it is almost an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for nitrogen. Their methodology is to establish demonstration projects in which socio-ecological approaches for improving nitrogen management are implemented and the resulting nitrogen flow is tracked down the river basin to the estuary.

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Delegates visit an LTSER site in an agricultural context (Picture: Johan Pauw)

Parc Balzac in Angiers, an urban LTSER site for flood management and recreation (Picture: Johan Pauw)

The complex issue of standardisation among ILTER networks was addressed by Peter Haase of the Senckenberg Research Institute. He gave examples of global frameworks such as the Ecosystem Integrity Framework, which has a bias towards abiotic variables, and the Essential Biodiversity Variables, which is biased towards biotic variables.

Using these frameworks would be conducive to synergy and cross-site research, given that there the same variables would be measured in the same way; which would harmonise the resulting data sets. However, there are challenges in that changes in methodology used for LTER sites might destroy the value of the existing long-term datasets.

Appropriate statistical methods could address the problem. By maintaining the existing measurements, there are opportunities for access to additional data and the covering of a larger context. Indeed, a degree of heterogeneity is vital to be able to address new science and policy issues as they arise.

Notes from the ILTER Coordinating Committee meeting

The Coordinating Committee meeting is the de facto Annual General Meeting of ILTER, consisting of the voting member networks.


St Aubin island in the Loire River - a communal grazing system and flood-management LTSER site (Picture: Johan Pauw)

The meeting kicked off with a discussion on the content of an overview paper about ILTER that has been submitted to the journal STOTEN (Science of the Total Environment) published by Elsevier. The paper is presently under revision.

In a session, “Exemplary developments of national and continental LTER networks: What are the implications of better integrated research networks and infrastructures?”, I presented an invited paper on the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) and the two research infrastructures (RI) that have been allocated to SAEON to host.

In my talk I gave a short history of SAEON as well as that of the SARIR process. I described the character of each RI and posed the typical research questions for which these RIs would provide valuable data. I described the value addition to SAEON’s existing observation systems, primarily the exponential growth in capacity that will allow for the wider and more intense covering of landscapes and coastal systems.

I concluded by referring to the better efficiency ratio between staff and data delivery, the ability to answer new research questions including social-ecological questions in the LTSER modality and the need for RIs to integrate nationally and internationally. Other papers in this session were presented by China, Australia and Europe-LTER.

In another session, “Towards ILTER 2030 mission, goals and strategy”, Wim Hugo was invited to present his vision for ILTER network services at the global level. Wim covered the wide array of existing international initiatives and systems, in many of which he is actively involved, and how those relate to ILTER data management systems going forward.

ILTER also discussed operational issues and, among other things, progress with its global research projects including the Tea Bag Initiative aimed at studying litter decomposition in globally distributed ecosystems (SAEON’s Arid Lands Node is a collaborator in the project, which uses green tea and South Africa’s indigenous rooibos herbal tea), the Nitrogen Initiative and a new proposal called the Diversity-Stability Initiative.

Wim and I both led strategic breakout groups and presented our reports to the meeting. I moreover presented a strategy for ILTER to engage consistently and professionally with international partner organisations such as IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which is aimed at informing global policies. This strategy was adopted and subsequently I was re-elected as Chair of ILTER’s Public Policy Committee for another year.

Given Wim’s global experience, he was appointed as vice-chair for the ILTER Information Management Committee, with a view to him taking on the chairmanship as of the next year’s ILTER meeting in Taiwan.

The ILTER members confirmed and discussed the planning for the Second ILTER Open Science Meeting to be held in Leipzig between 2 and 9 September 2019.

Field trip

In the ensuing field trip, four Zone Ateliers LTSER sites were visited. These sites were either agricultural landscapes or green urban areas. At the agricultural landscapes, research focused on land management with feedback to the landowners. Some were more successful in achieving the interaction with land managers than others.

All four landscapes were artificial and landscaped for specific purposes, such as grazing, flood management and/or recreation. At these sites we were not given information about social science research projects, it was more a case of scientists studying different land-use practices and the resulting consequences for what are already artificial landscapes. I experienced this approach as very different from what I had expected, given my South African paradigms.

Another foreign experience to me was the fact that every big town in France has its own university. As a result, the Zone Ateliers sites are studied and maintained by a number of independent universities constituting the network members.

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