Professor David Hopkins, Head of the School of Life Sciences, briefly handed over responsibility from the School to join an international research programme in the Namib Desert in Namibia. David, an environmental scientist who has many years' experience working on ecosystem processes in the extreme cold polar deserts in Antarctica, was invited to the programme led by the Universities of Pretoria and Western Cape in South Africa to provide expertise on soil processes in the gravel plains, sea of dunes and ephemeral river systems which dominate the Namibian landscape.
These ecosystems receive very little precipitation (typically less than 100 mm per year - less than one tenth the amount of rain received in Edinburgh) and in some cases more moisture arrives from fog than from rainfall. Professor Hopkins' contribution to the research is in determining the controlling factors on nutrient cycling in the soils, which is essential for understanding subsistence farming and conservation of sensitive desert ecosystems.
This work fits in with his other NERC-supported research work on temperature sensitivity of carbon cycling in ecosystems and managing nutrient cycling in agriculture. The transition from cold to hot deserts may not seem obvious, but the parallels are striking - water availability determines ecological processes in both ecosystems and leads to similar specialist adaptations to cope with the extreme lack of water.
The research programme is based at the Gobabeb Desert Research Centre and in addition to South African and Namibian collaborators, includes researchers from Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands.