Oct. 13-19, 2000
Back Issues
Envisioning the University transformed: Casteen seeks comment on 2020 reports
Foundation to fund biomedical research
U.Va. scientist leads team in atmospheric research in Africa

New faculty beef up psychology department

Hot Links -- Brooks Hall
Notable -- awards and achievements of U.Va. faculty and staff
MTV tours U.Va.
Faculty Actions -- from Oct. BOV meeting
New faculty and staff resource fair to be held Nov. 8
Bob Swap
Top left: At this summer's opening-day ceremonies, U.Va. environmental sciences professor Bob Swap thanks government dignitaries, and others, for allowing him and his team to participate in SAFARI -- the Southern Africa Regional Science Initiative 2000. The project is a massive international effort to study the atmosphere over southern Africa.

U.Va. scientist leads team in atmospheric research in Africa

By Fariss Samarrai

Bob Swap is a big, athletic-looking guy. As a walk-on football player for the Cavaliers, he went to the Peach Bowl in 1984. An offensive guard and center, he says he learned the value of teamwork for achieving success. Today, Swap is a team-building environmental scientist with a Ph.D. from U.Va. Last year, NASA appointed him as the U.S. coordinator for the Southern Africa Regional Science Initiative (SAFARI) 2000, a massive international effort to study the atmosphere over southern Africa.

"Playing as a team member taught me the value of team building," says Swap, a U.Va. assistant research professor of environmental sciences. "I understand the importance and complexity of bringing people together for a common cause."

Swap's cause is to better understand how the earth and its atmosphere interact. The long-term goal of SAFARI is to understand how climate change affects ecosystems and how human actions affect climate change.

"This is a three-year project involving more than 200 scientists from nine African nations, the U.S., Australia, Britain, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Portugal and Sweden," says Swap.

instrument tower
Photo courtesy of NASA
One of the key instrument towers of the SAFARI 2000 project, located in Kruger National Park, collects critical research data.

In his role as U.S. coordinator for SAFARI, Swap brought together government and academic scientists from the U.S. to team up with colleagues from Africa and Europe for two months this summer. Members of the team also will periodically visit Africa for additional data collection in coming years.

"During our big summer initiative we conducted research on the ground, and in the air," says Swap. "And we are now in the process of comparing our data with data from "Terra," NASA's new Earth Observing System satellite. We are conducting the most comprehensive study ever of the atmosphere over Africa, the Earth's second-largest land mass."

Swap says that the air over Africa has a major effect on the air worldwide. By understanding African air, scientists can better understand global atmospheric conditions.

"Africa is a big piece of the puzzle," he says. "Our goal is to characterize the whole regional atmospheric unit in southern Africa, and eventually integrate it into computer models. We need to know how Africa fits into the global climate picture."

Swap says southern Africa has undergone a great deal of industrialization in recent decades. This has dramatically increased air pollution in the region. African nations also are burning huge expanses of forest and grasslands to make room for more agricultural land. The resulting atmospheric carbon could play a role in accelerating global warming.

"It is important that we begin to recognize and understand how land use worldwide affects atmospheric change," he says. "SAFARI is our chance to get the data right in an important region of the world."

Swap points out that in coming decades, as African nations come into their own after years of colonialism, they will play increasingly important roles in the world economy.

Giraffes, such as this one, were common sights where Swap was conducting research in Kruger National Park, near Skukuza, South Africa.

"Because of the size of the land these countries occupy, they will have enormous global bargaining power for both the exploitation of natural resources and for the sound environmental management of those resources," Swap says. "It is conceivable that the more established industrialized nations will eventually find themselves paying African nations large fees to manage their natural resources for the global good."

Swap spent a large part of his research time this summer high above Africa, observing massive fires aboard a SAFARI 2000 research plane. Five aircraft logged more than 500 hours of flying time while gathering data -- including a NASA ER-2 research plane, a modified version of the Air Force's U2 spy plane. The ER2 can reach the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere. From these vantage points, Swap and his team gathered chemical and environmental information that will be used to help calibrate "Terra's" instruments.

Swap's U.Va. colleagues in the SAFARI study include Chris Justice, Hank Shugart, Paul Desanker, Steve Macko and John Albertson, fellow investigators in Environmental Sciences' Global Environmental Change Program (GECP), as well as two postdoctoral researchers and eight graduate students. The GECP team gathered soil, vegetation and atmospheric data on the ground in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

U.Va.'s Department of Environmental Sciences has been conducting research in Africa for many years, Swap says, with more than 15 members involved in various projects. The department also has an informal student exchange program set up with institutions in Botswana, Malawi and South Africa.

Swap says he was selected as U.S. coordinator for SAFARI because he and his U.Va. team have established close collaboration with several leading scientists in Africa. He describes the selection as "a natural fit."

"Because we have a department of such scientifically diverse faculty -- ecologists, hydrologists, earth and atmospheric scientists -- we are perfectly suited to conduct the kind of research that is important to understanding African land-atmosphere interactions," he says.


© Copyright 2000 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

UVa Home Page UVa Events Calendar Top News UVa Home Page