2020: The year of the right questions and the BIG ‘break’

Show me one person that did not change their initial plans in 2020… That was definitely not me – neither in my professional or personal life.

The year started promising myself I will ask the right questions, and not necessarily stress to find the answers to everything. Lockdown and covid19 changed my everyday life, changed my plans but in essence, looking under the surface, I kept asking questions during the year.

And although mostly we all asked “why this?” “why now?” “what are we doing now?” “when are we going back?”, I forced myself to take advantage of the big “break” and ask among others:

  • “How might we change everything now that we can?”
  • “How might the work environment change in the future? And how might we ensure that we do not go back to wrong practices?”
  • “How do we empower the young generation to be an improved version of themselves?”
  • “What is my life and work purpose?”
  • “How do I protect my mental health and teach my students and mentees to prioritize their mental health too?”

In that journey of questions, I had interesting co-passengers: the SAYAS blogging team of 2020. The bloggers started the year unknowingly pointing on issues that kept us engaged during 2020. Pagiel almost looked into the future and discussed the two tales of the South African education system, and Richard introduced us to the role of social media for impactful science that reaches the society. Michelle started the year trying to identify her purpose and fulfilment for the year, while Sinenhlanhla encouraged all of us to find what fuels our passion – and reach for the stars.

The rest of the year, we were all fortunate to read blogs from a wide variety of topics that ranged from the interesting story of the spekboom trees and tree blindness, science communication topics, fake news and the right to be wrong, women in science and role models, tributes to icons, the education sector and its evolution, as well as topics of interest for students (from students) such as preparation for conferences, supervisors and mentorship during a pandemic, financial challenges, the toxic culture in tertiary institutions etc.

Closing the year as an editor of the SAYAS blog, I learned so much from working with this team, not only content wise but from their work ethics and creativity. At this point, I would like to also thank all the contributors of blogs that shared their thoughts and ideas.

The “big break” was the right time for slow thinking and reassessing what is important in our lives, what we will keep and what we will let go. It might not have happened naturally to all of us, but my suggestion is to pause for a bit in December, look back in the year and take a moment to realise how much we have all grown and matured during this year consciously and unconsciously.

See you all next year with more blogs and other exciting ideas.

Climate research is critical in Africa: how to make it more visible

Written by Prof Jennifer Fitchett (SAYAS member)

Weather and climate have far-reaching effects on every part of life. The timing of seasons, range of daily and seasonal temperatures, the amount of rainfall – these all influence things as diverse as food production, disease prevalence and tourism.

You don’t need to be a scientist to know what good weather feels like. But there’s a scientific discipline which studies the effect of weather and climate on natural systems. Biometeorology is the study of the role of climate on plants, animals and humans. This includes the impact of day to day weather and long term climate.

Specific fields of study include the role of weather and climate on phenology in plants and animalsplant productivity and domestic animal health and performance. Phenology is the timing of biological events that occur every year, like blossoming, fruit development and leaf colouration.

In human populations, the field of study includes analyses of thermal comfort and stress, the spread of climate-sensitive disease and the impact of climate on tourism.

The discipline was formalised in the 1950s with the establishment of the International Society of Biometeorology and its flagship journal the International Journal of Biometeorology.

Biometeorological research is particularly important in Africa. The continent is projected to experience temperature increases bigger than the global mean throughout the 21st century. Changes in rainfall distribution are projected to heighten the occurrence and severity of droughts, floods and extreme climate events.

The Cape Town “Day Zero” drought, driven by a displacement of moisture corridors, was one such extreme drought. Cyclone Idai, which hit southern Africa in 2019, is one of the best examples of extreme flood events. These are projectedto become more common as tropical cyclones intensify.

The continent already experiences climate-sensitive diseases which present challenges to health systems. They include malaria, cholera, ebola, dengue and yellow fever.

Agriculture – both subsistence and commercial – is of great importance across the continent. And in many countries, climate-sensitive tourism sectors are becoming an important part of the economy.

The threats of climate change to plants, animals and people in Africa mean that the continent is an excellent place for biometeorological research. It also means that the findings of research are of critical importance in informing some of the most important policies.

But the continent is still not well represented in academic output in this field. I conducted a review and found that research in or about African countries makes up only 3.4% of the 4,014 papers in the International Journal of Biometeorology.

Topics of African biometeorology have been included in the journal since the first issue in 1957. The number of these papers has increased since 2011. But the overall number of papers increased at the same time, so the proportion of African papers hasn’t changed very much.

The majority of papers that have been published from the African continent are on topics of animal biometeorology. These include, for example, analyses of heat stress in hensbody temperatures of donkeys and the effects of melatonin on broiler chickens.

The African country with the biggest share of the papers is Nigeria. Again, the topics are mostly about animals. Some papers are on topics such as phenologyand conditions for malaria transmission.

Other countries where 15 or more biometeorological studies have been conducted are Algeria, Morocco, Ghana and South Africa.

Making up less than half the number of studies are topics like human thermal comfort and stress, human health, phenology, and plant productivity and stress.

In terms of authorship, 66% of these papers are by at least one researcher based in an African country. But only 15 African countries are included in this authorship.

How to increase African authorship

It’s possible that one reason African research is not well represented in the journal is that academics and their students aren’t aware of the subdiscipline, society or journal. The International Society of Biometeorology has been working to address this through including regional councillors in their executive. This could also be addressed in a number of ways. These include inviting more African researchers to serve as reviewers for the journal, organising African themes for the society symposiums and putting together special African issues in the journal. Each of these require engagement from and involvement of African researchers in this field.

Another key in promoting biometeorology is education at university level. The Students and New Professionals Group of the International Society of Biometeorology has been involved in developing educational content. Only one country in Africa (Uganda) currently has a biometeorology course. A handful of countries include biometeorology topics in broader courses on climate or the environment, and a small group of researchers are supervising students in these topics.

Over time a combination of these efforts will hopefully give the African continent greater representation in biometeorology research. This will improve the capacity to detect, measure and assess the impacts of climate change on natural systems and to develop effective adaptation strategies.

This article was first published in The Conversation.