Agrometeorology Graduate Investigates Relationship between Atmospheric Dynamics and Wildfires
Agrometeorology student, Mr Sheldon Strydom, graduated with his Masters in Science cum laude - a remarkable feat for a student who completed his undergraduate degree in the Social Sciences before moving onto postgraduate studies in the Sciences.
Strydom, supervised by Professor Michael Savage, completed his Bachelor of Social Sciences in the discipline of Geography, and then chose to follow his passion for atmospheric science and climatology to a postgraduate career in Agrometeorology, after taking the discipline’s second-year courses during his undergraduate studies.
‘He is the first student in the history of UKZN, and possibly the country, with a BSocSci undergraduate degree to complete a Masters in Agrometeorology,’ said Savage. ‘He also obtained his BSc Honours cum laude and his honours project, which I also supervised, was based on the Agrometeorology Instrumentation Mast (AIM) data and information system for the agro-environmental sciences.’
Strydom’s masters research was focused in the area of fire meteorology, specifically investigating the relationship between atmospheric dynamics and wildfires. His work included the analysis of 11 years’ of spatial and temporal variations in South African fires, using satellite-derived fire hotspots and applying geographic information system (GIS) analyses to link to changes in climate and vegetation.
His masters research also included a fuzzy logic system for determining periods of Berg winds (warm, dry winds descending the escarpment which have a notable influence on fire danger). The effects of Berg winds on the microclimate were also studied and two near real-time fire danger index measurement systems were developed – the South African Lowveld fire danger index and the Australian McArthur fire danger meters.
The two fire danger indices developed in Strydom’s study were modified to allow them to be programmed into an Automatic Weather Station (AWS) data-logger to provide hourly and sub-hourly fire danger information. These systems are currently in use as part of the UKZN Agrometeorological Instrumentation Mast (AIM) system and provide valuable data regarding fire danger in the region.
‘One examiner found that his Masters dissertation conveyed a complex research idea, methodology and findings in a manner easy to read and understand,’ said Savage. ‘This examiner also noted that the findings, if implemented and practised nationally, would be indispensable and an invaluable tool not only to the agricultural and forest community but also to the country’s economic sector in general. The second examiner found that the study is timely as it re-examined research by previously contracted research institutions in South Africa, which had lost momentum, on the potential of different fire danger rating systems suitable for South Africa.’
Having come from a Social Sciences background, Strydom was able to bring a unique set of skills to his research.
‘While there are a few challenges, having a background in Social Science has never held me back,’ said Strydom. ‘Effective writing is essential to the Social Sciences and I think this has been the biggest contribution of my Social Science background, which has also equipped me with the tools to understand phenomena from multiple perspectives. In my opinion, a big problem with the science and research sector is understanding multiple perspectives and effectively communicating research findings to stakeholders and impacted parties. For example, there is some great climate change research being done around the country but there is a problem in communicating the implications of the research to lay persons, and that is where some training in social science can be invaluable. Science shouldn’t be done for the sake of science; it should be done to contribute towards a positive change for all.’
‘We all assist in each other’s research by helping to set up equipment or by providing assistance in data collection,’ said Strydm. ‘I would never be where I am today without the support from the other Agromet postgrads and the support and guidance from Professor Savage.’
Strydom said that the first step to becoming a motivated, hardworking student who achieved a Masters cum laude degree was recognising how privileged he was. ‘It took a while for me to realise this,’ said Strydom. ‘Most students don’t realise how fortunate they are to be at university. There are a lot of people who wish to be here and who could be here if it wasn’t for one or two barriers. Understanding the magnitude of this opportunity drives me every day. I have been blessed with these opportunities and I will do my best not to waste them.’
Strydom is currently working on his PhD in Agrometeorology with Savage as his supervisor. He aims to submit articles based on his masters research to international journals to review for publication. He has also been lecturing atmospheric science to second year Geography students as a relief lecturer, pointing towards a career in academia for Strydom.
Strydom expressed gratitude to God and his family for unfailing support and for showing him the value of hard work. He thanked the Agrometeorology and Geography disciplines for their support and assistance.