Expeditions & Events


GOBABEB COLLOQUIUM REPORT – Desert research:  past and future

Colloquium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre

Shortly before he died, Professor John Skinner, former President of the Royal Society of South Africa, persuaded Council that the Society should organise a colloquium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what now is called the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, the iconic research station in the Namib Desert, Namibia.  Council agreed to this unusual event, a South African scientific society honouring a research enterprise in a neighbouring country.  The Centre does have a strong historical link to South Africa.  Under a previous name, Desert Ecological Research Unit, the Centre operated under the auspices of what then was the Transvaal Museum, Pretoria, and received finance from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and Foundation for Research Development.  Amongst the many researchers that it has hosted from around the world is a cohort of grateful South Africans.

Professor Don Cowan FRSSAf

Professor Don Cowan FRSSAf

Professor Skinner’s successor as President, Professor Don Cowan FRSSAf, took up the challenge, and initiated a colloquium timed to coincide with the end of his Royal Society Expedition to Gobabeb.  With help from Professor Andrea Fuller and Sandra de Villiers-Soltynski, Professor Mary Seely FRSSAf and Professor Duncan Mitchell FRSSAf arranged a programme for the colloquium, which took place at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre on April 30th and May 1st 2012.  Professor Seely and her team at the Centre made all the logistical arrangements necessary to accommodate and cater for delegates, to provide transport for those who needed it from Walvis Bay airport, and to expose delegates to the desert surroundings of the Centre via nature trails and dune excursions, surroundings which will form part of the new World Heritage site, if an application now before UNESCO is approved.

Forty delegates included Royal Society Fellows and Members and four members from the NASA Spaceward Bound Program who had participated in the Royal Society Expedition stayed on for the colloquium, and their leader, Dr Chris McKay, gave two talks on how investigations in the Namib Desert could help NASA’s search for life on Mars.  Two other Expedition members, from Professor Cowan’s research institute, also stayed for the colloquium.  There was strong support for the colloquium from Namibian researchers, mostly recruited by Professor Seely, who also encouraged the Gobabeb staff to attend the activities.  So the colloquium ended up busy and lively.

The research substance of the colloquium consisted of 22 invited and volunteer talks, a poster session, and a concluding quartet of round table discussions.  Researchers more familiar with discipline-specific meetings derived much pleasure, and substantial scientific benefit, from attending talks and viewing posters which ranged from reports of Gobabeb’s outreach educational programmes, through Namibian conservation biology and descriptions of the human impacts of uranium mining, through satellite measurement of desert surface temperature, to the structure of hypolithic micro-organism communities and the physiology and conservation of Arabian oryx.  The round table discussions were constructed, at Professor Seely’s request, to advise Gobabeb on a plan for future Namib research, exploiting the opportunity of a multidisciplinary gathering of researchers.  Two future research themes received strong support, both related to future impacts on the natural and human environment in Namibia.  One source of impact would be climate change and the other anthropogenic land transformation, particularly that resulting from mining.  Successful pursuit of both those themes will depend on accessing and sustaining the long-term database on Namib biology, geomorphology and climate that Gobabeb has assembled since its foundation by Dr Charles Koch (Entomologist at the Transvaal Museum) in 1962.  That database is one of very few databases of conservation value available for the southern hemisphere.

Though the way the colloquium played out may not have been what the late Professor Skinner had envisaged, he would have been pleased with its outcome, and especially with the lively interaction, in spectacular surroundings and congenial company, of researchers of very diverse backgrounds and skills.

Submitted (with photographs) by Duncan Mitchell & Mary Seely