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Spatial patterns of nutrient limitation and carbon storage in South African coastal lowland landscapes

Funded By: National Science Foundation: EAGER, $150,000

                   George H. Deike, Jr. Research Grant, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, $50,000

Geographically, Africa is one of the weakest links in the understanding of land-atmosphere carbon exchange.   The objectives of this research are to (1) employ a novel experimental design to determine how variation in nutrient availability determines spatial patterns in grassland carbon productivity and (2) provide the first-ever quantification of carbon storage in coastal and dune forests within two priority nature reserves in the southeastern coast of South Africa.  Contrasting fire and vegetation patterns within each reserve will allow for the development of new pyrogeographic perspectives on African carbon storage at landscape scales.  By studying carbon storage in priority conservation areas in coastal South Africa, this research will establish a deeper understanding of the role of African landscapes in conservation management and global ecosystem science. 

A current lack of understanding of complex interactions among fire, climate, and nutrient cycling hinders broad-scale modeling of ecosystem response to climate change.  This issue is particularly acute for Africa, which represents the largest source of fire-derived carbon emissions and for which carbon storage estimates are scarce. Direct measurement of carbon storage in new locations and identification of its limiting factors across multiple scales, as explored in this project, is critical for the development of future diagnostic modeling efforts. Understanding how fire and soil nutrients govern these patterns will contribute to            landscape and conservation management in the region and globally.

As one facet of this ongoing research, undergraduate Arianna Simpson cataloged and digitally archived a manual of tree and shrub species present in the Cwebe and Dwesa national reserves on South Africa's Wild Coast. 

This research is run in parallel with an education abroad program at Penn State, Parks and People, focused on interdisciplinary training of undergraduate students in collaborative international science.  Those interested in the study abroad program should visit: for further information.