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U.Va. Scientist To Lead U.S. Team This Summer In Atmospheric Research In Africa

July 14, 2000 -- Bob Swap is a big athletic-looking guy. As a walk-on football player for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, he went to the Peach Bowl in 1984. An offensive guard and center, he learned the value of teamwork for achieving success. Today, Swap is a team-building environmental scientist with a Ph.D. from U.Va. Recently 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. In his role as U.S. coordinator for SAFARI, he has brought together government and academic scientists from the U.S. to team up in August and much of September with colleagues from Africa and Europe. The long-term goal of the project is to understand how climate change affects ecosystems and how human actions affect climate change.

"This is a three-year project involving scientists from seven African nations, the U.S., Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal and Sweden," says Swap. "We will be conducting research on the ground, in the air, and we will be 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 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," 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, Swap says.

"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.

"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 possible 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 will spend a good deal of his time this summer above Africa, aboard one of the SAFARI 2000 research planes. NASA also is sending an ER-2 research plane, a modified version of the Air Force's U2 spy plane which can reach the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere. From these vantage points, Swap and his team will gather chemical and environmental data that can later be used to help calibrate Terra's instruments.

Swap's U.Va. colleagues in Africa will include Chris Justice, Hank Shugart and Paul Desanker, fellow members of U.Va.'s Global Environmental Change Program (GECP), as well as a postdoctoral researcher and four graduate students. The GECP team will gather 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, 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 has established close collaborations with several leading scientists in Africa. He describes his selection as "a natural fit."

"Because I work in 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.

Contact: Farris Samarrai, (804) 924-3778

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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