“With this in operation, we will be able to get data about rainfall in an area of 1x1km anywhere at any time in the park up to as far as 20 kilometres south of Shingwedzi,” says Nick Zambatis, vegetation ecologist in the Kruger National Park (KNP), who is also responsible for the KNP’s climate monitoring program.
Nick says the new facility in Kruger’s research toolkit will have a huge impact on many of the research projects in Kruger, as “rain is the main driver of the Lowveld ecosystem,” and to date, Kruger has had to rely on data gathered from about 30 rainfall stations across the Park.
“Trying to map the extent and amount of rainfall over a major part of the Park’s surface using the data from these gauges is something which has had many technical problems, with generally unsatisfactory results. The data which will be provided by the radar and which will enable this to be done reliably is a dream come true”.
He adds that the SA Weather Service will also make other related weather data available to scientific services in Kruger. This includes data from the Lightning Detection Network, which has an accuracy of 200 metres and will assist with capturing data about the occurrence of lightning in the park.
Does lightning occur randomly or is it concentrated in certain areas, and at certain times? These are only some of the factors that can be assessed, which could in turn be applied in Kruger's fire management programme.
This was, however, not the main reason why the radar station was constructed. The South African Weather Services needed to erect another radar station to fill a gap in their existing network that provides weather data in terms of rainfall and thunderstorm activity for agriculture, disaster mitigation, aviation safety, and especially as an early warning system for floods such as those that occurred in 2000.
The radar station can monitor cloud activity within a radius of 220km and will link up with a radar station in Xai-Xai in Mozambique, as well as other stations in Ermelo and Polokwane. The second-hand system was shipped from the United States of America, and once it arrived was totally revamped and upgraded with unique South African technology.
The radar housing and antenna tower have been painted in a colour blends in best with the environment during winter and summer. The coating of the antenna radome, which does not contain any metal, and thus does not affect the radar signals, was specially sourced from Norway.
According to Nick, the Weather Services decided on Skukuza as the best location as the other options were either too close to high mountains or located in uneven terrain, obstructing the ‘visibility’ of the radar.
The heart of the radar station is located in a custom-built container at the foot of the steel antenna tower. The 4.2 metre diameter parabolic antenna is contained within a glass-fibre radome on top of the tower.
Data from the radar will be transmitted to the SA Weather Service in Pretoria, and from there to forecasting offices countrywide. Jan Blackie of the SA Weather Service says they are just waiting for the Telkom data line to be installed before final operational tests are carried out, and that the radar station should be fully operational by September this year.
"I'd like to thank all the Kruger staff who have made our task so much easier and so much more cost effective," says Blackie. "Our team had a great time working in the park. The whole project has been a truly collaborative effort between the South African Weather Service and Sanparks, sister organisations under the national department of environmental affairs and tourism".