Scientific tracking app to help save fynbos vegetation

28 November 2017 - 10:54 By Nico Gous
The change detection tool (EMMA) has been developed for Fynbos vegetation, but has potential to be adapted to many other ecosystems.
The change detection tool (EMMA) has been developed for Fynbos vegetation, but has potential to be adapted to many other ecosystems.
Image: Jasper Slingsby

Scientists have created one of the first digital tools to track changes in South African fynbos vegetation. They hope it will inform land managers and policy makers about abnormal changes.

“We could provide that information to the provincial Department of Environmental Affairs and they could then go and follow up and check permits and such‚” Dr Jasper Slingsby from the South African Environmental Observation Network (Saeon) said.

“The preliminary stuff is very‚ very‚ very encouraging. We really think we are onto something here.” Slingsby said similar tools exist to track forests‚ such as Global Forest Watch.

Slingsby‚ Dr Glenn Moncrieff of Ixio Analytics and a Saeon Research Associate‚ and Prof Adam Wilson from the University at Buffalo recently won a prize from the United Nations (UN) for their research tool.

They developed a web-based prototype called Emma (Ecosystem Monitoring for Management Application) and a smartphone application‚ VeldWatch.

Screenshot of the detection tool EMMA.
Screenshot of the detection tool EMMA.
Image: Supplied

Emma shows how healthy the current fynbos is against the norm. It does this by comparing the current fynbos vegetation against a statistical model which Wilson developed for his PhD. The model uses fynbos data from 2000 to 2014 and accounts for the season‚ environmental conditions and the time since the last fire.

Slingsby said: “We decided to use that period because we did not want to include this current drought.”

Emma also uses a variety of data sources including Nasa’s Modis (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index) data from their Terra and Aqua satellites. This information is free and updated every eight to 16 days.

Field rangers‚ land owners and others can use VeldWatch to map where they see vegetation clearing‚ invasive plants or landslides.

The team won the Thematic Award for Climate Mitigation and R55 000 ($4 000) in the UN Global Pulse’s Data for Climate Action Challenge. UN Global Pulse wants to speed up the development and adoption of data for sustainable development.

The team said this prototype might extend to other ecosystems in the future. They are looking for funding to develop the project and make it available to the public.

The United Nations Educational‚ Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) declared the Cape Floristic region a World Heritage Site in 2004. This is where most fynbos grows. The region covers less than 0.5% of the continents’ land mass‚ but is home to almost 20% of the continent’s flora.