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Socio-ecological landscape dynamics in the headwaters of the Okavango. CASE partner: National Geographic Society

Project Description

Using remote sensing and field work to understand the changing landscape and human use of the Okavango watershed in the highlands of Angola.
Project background
The Okavango Wilderness Project seeks to protect the landscapes of Angola and Namibia that support the incredible Okavango delta. These landscapes, particularly the highlands of Angola, are some of the wildest on the planet and are the most intact part of the world’s largest savanna – the woodlands of southern Africa (Ryan et al 2016). In recognition of this, new protected areas are being developed in the region by national governments and the National Geographic Society (NGS).

This PhD will support this work. It will use remote sensing, combined with ~5 months of field work, to understand the current land use in the region and how it is changing. This will include analysing the ecological and social dynamics of the landscape – although remote, tens of thousands of people make their livelihoods here through agriculture, bushmeat hunting, and charcoal making, and this has been changing rapidly since the end of the Angolan civil war.

Recent advances in radar remote sensing (McNicol et al 2018) and new types of satellites data (e.g. from ESA’s Copernicus system) can be used to understand the current landscape and recent changes. In particular, these new data sets allow the mapping of the structure and floristics of vegetation, as well as changes due to human use. The NGS have collected a large amount of data from field expeditions and aerial photography which can be used to develop and test these approaches. The student will work with NGS to collect further ground data, including setting up new long term monitoring plots.

Research questions
What are the main vegetation types and land uses in the Okavango watershed, and how have these changed in the last decade?
Which areas of the watershed are least fragmented, and which provide important ecological connectivity?
How has human use of the landscape changed over the last decade, including deforestation, tree harvesting and the use of fire?
How best can remote sensing be used to understand both the ecological and social aspects of landscape change, and to support the conservation of the watershed?
Year 1. Understand the social and ecological context of the OWP landscape through field work and land use mapping. Test methods for mapping vegetation biomass and species composition, building on tools developed in Ryan’s group. Prototype mapping of human use of the landscape using our BIOTA tool, which will need to be adapted to the specifics of the region.

Year 2. Refine mapping methods and apply them to understand landscape change over the last decade. Validate the results with social and ecological field data. The field work is likely to involve i) understanding land use history through surveys and qualitative methods, and ii) setting up vegetation plots suitable for long term analysis using the SEOSAW protocol, to test the accuracy of the remote sensing. There is also a large amount of aerial photography collected by NGS which could be used for this purpose, particularly for a student interested in image processing.

Year 3. Complete analyses and work with NGS to integrate the results into their planning.

Ongoing training will be provided by the supervisors in remote sensing methods and field data collection. KC at NGS will provide expertise on the ecological and social context of the landscapes and link this work to ongoing mapping by National Geographic Labs. KD is expert in the floristics of the region. CR and his group have developed a set of methods for remote socio-ecological sensing of African savanna landscapes, and there will be many opportunities to work with other students and post docs using these methods. In addition CR runs regular group meetings which cover a wide range of skills, from scientific writing to programming. There will also be opportunities for more directed training (summer schools etc) in remote sensing, vegetation ecology, and qualitative methods. A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills.

This project will suit an interdisciplinary student with an interest in landscape ecology and the role of ecosystems in supporting rural livelihoods. Suitable backgrounds include, but are not limited to, informatics, environmental science, remote sensing and geography. More important than past experience or existing knowledge is the ability to learn new methods and concepts. The ability to work in Portuguese is an advantage.

CASE partner: National Geographic Society

Funding Notes

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Ryan, C.M., Pritchard, R., McNicol, I., Owen, M., Fisher, J.A. & Lehmann, C. (2016) Ecosystem services from southern African woodlands and their future under global change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371, 20150312.

McNicol, I.M., Ryan, C.M. & Mitchard, E.T.A. (2018) Carbon losses from deforestation and widespread degradation offset by extensive growth in African woodlands. Nature Communications, 9, 3045.

Inside the Mission to Save Africa’s Okavango Delta:

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 104.98

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