NASA conducts biodiversity field campaign in the Western Cape


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

This initiative is part of a collaborative project with South African scientists aimed at enhancing our understanding of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and reducing biodiversity loss and threats. The two aircraft have already taken flight from Cape Town and will embark on six weeks of data collection for this unique project.

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.

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 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.