Many academics take sabbaticals in leading laboratories or esteemed institutions. Most stick to the comforts of developed countries. David Checkley Jr. and Lisa A. Levin, both oceanographers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, chose a less common destination: coastal Namibia, where they assessed climate change risk and made a case for better local resource management. Their story is a sequel to Science Careers' recent feature on science in Namibia.
In January 2011, the two of us flew to Namibia for a 6-month sabbatical as visiting professors with Partnerships for Observation of the Global Ocean. Officially, we were there to teach on topics related to biodiversity, climate change, and ocean observing; assess local needs for marine science education; and help develop strategies to address these needs. But Namibia offered more personal research opportunities as well. Dave, a plankton and fisheries biologist, planned to study the effects of climate change on Namibia's economically vital sardine fishery. Lisa, who studies oxygen depletion in marine environments, was here to tick Walvis Bay off her bucket list of oxygen minimum zone study sites.
We were based at the National Marine Information and Research Centre (NatMIRC) in Swakopmund, a city along the central coast of Namibia that was founded by German colonists and retains German cultural influences. We joined a research team traveling hundreds of kilometers along the beach, up the Skeleton Coast. Here, a productive ocean meets arid desert, and many of the coastal land mammals, such as jackals, hyenas, springbok, and oryx, come to feed on whale and seal carcasses, ghost crabs (present by the millions), and seaweed. Lisa and Bronwen Currie, her NatMIRC host, set out to document the consumption of various marine food sources by land animals along the coast using stable isotope techniques. Unusually heavy rainfall -- Namibia measures its annual precipitation in millimeters -- lent an abnormal lushness to the landscape. The normally dry rivers flooded and broke through to the ocean, invading the waters with terrestrial debris that piled up on the beaches. This afforded another opportunity for Lisa and Bronwen to study how marine and terrestrial environments influence each other but this time in the opposite direction.
Whales, fur seals, turtles, sharks, and fish abound in Namibia's coastal waters. We each made trips to the Namibian coast's oxygen minimum zones -- hypoxic regions of ocean that occasionally release massive (and massively smelly) pockets of sulfide gases -- aboard the Welwitschia, a vessel named after a strange, long-lived desert plant endemic to Namibia. The Namibian coastal shelf is home to dense mats of Thiomargarita, the world's largest bacteria, which sequester phosphorus and feed into a motley food chain that includes bearded gobies, jellyfish, hake, and seals. Recently, a new threat to this terrain has emerged: Phosphate mining companies have leased the seabed down to 220 meters in order to harvest phosphorites condensed by the bacteria.
Mining and fishing are big business in Namibia, and managing these activities in the face of political, economic, and climatic change can be challenging. Once one of the world's largest, the Namibian sardine fishery collapsed in the 1960s. The Namibian sardine remains under pressure not only from those seeking it but also as by-catch of the horse mackerel fishery. These fisheries jobs are important in a country with higher than 50% unemployment. The changing climate also threatens the sardines. Namibia, like many countries, lacks the information needed to implement better fisheries management.
The upside of Namibia's small population -- 2.1 million in a country the size of France -- is that the messages of outside experts, such as Dave, can be influential. An early seminar by Dave on climate and fisheries elicited the question of whether to continue fishing the Namibian sardine at its low stock size. A subsequent collaboration by Dave, his host Anja Kreiner, and Beau Tjizoo has led to climate being considered more strongly in sardine-management decisions.
There is much exciting science to be done in Namibia, but there are many challenges, including poor Internet access and meager supplies. Nonetheless, the local students and scientists we met were enthusiastic, versatile, and resourceful. In this land, sunlight through the window serves as a microscope light, tea strainers sieve animals from sediments, drinking bottles hold seawater samples, and water is filtered using gravity. Namibia does not have a federal agency like the U.S. National Science Foundation to fund academic research, so university professors, many of whom don't have Ph.D.s, often seek grants from overseas.
Lisa came away from her sabbatical with a sense that Namibia needs to build capacity in deep-ocean resource management. Proper stewardship of Namibia's resources will require advanced technologies to survey and identify vulnerable marine resources in deep water; expertise in the dynamics and resilience of deep-ocean organisms, marine policy and economics; and increased awareness of the importance of biodiversity and the political will to protect it.
Arranging to work in Namibia requires interest and enthusiasm from visitors and their hosts. The payoff is exciting science, adventure, and the opportunity to help Namibia better understand and manage its own resources. It was the sabbatical of a lifetime for us both.
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Lisa Levin and David Checkley are researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California