South Africa’s most arid wetland systems are found in the Northern Cape Province. These systems, colloquially known as pans, depend exclusively on rainfall or flooding events for their existence. Given the variable climate typically associated with arid environments, these pans are desiccated for years. It is surprising that even though wetlands in arid environments are rarely wet, they have been recognised to act as important biodiversity features worldwide. This is elucidated by global studies that have shown pan biota to be specially adapted to ephemerality. These adaptations allow them to survive desiccation for decades and to respond rapidly as soon as conditions become favourable.

The pans of the Northern Cape, believed to be important ecosystems, have been subject to various land uses for decades, including livestock agriculture, crop farming, salt mining, water extraction and recreational activities. The recent shift of development focus to the Karoo in terms of fossil fuels, renewable energy, radio astronomy and speed record attempts has not only increased anthropogenic pressure on the wetland ecosystems, but subsequently revealed the immense necessity to fill the knowledge deficit for the region, especially in the field of freshwater ecology. It is therefore crucial to assemble scientific information that will assist in understanding these systems, as well as developing long-term monitoring, conservation and management strategies, to guide anthropogenic practises in future.

This project aims to characterise ephemeral pans in the Northern Cape Province by using remote sensing and in-situ sampling protocols so as to establish a long-term monitoring framework. By studying the biodiversity of pans, and the structure and functioning of these ecosystems, it will be possible to evaluate the significance of impacts and changes in these systems in relation to global and land use change. This project will achieve ground-breaking research into the scant knowledge pool regarding ephemeral pans of the Northern Cape. It will allow SAEON Arid Lands Node to provide much-needed information to land managers and decision makers on the management and conservation of these pans.