Unique scientific opportunities in the SSA region

In the global context, SSA represents a unique geographic region, comprising a great diversity of ecosystems, cultures, and unique human-land-water-atmospheric interfaces and interactions. It is a globally significant region with respect to biodiversity, geosciences, and atmospheric sciences, and hosts a number of world-class research sites and institutions. It presents singular opportunities and resources for advancing scientific knowledge and addressing important regional and global environmental problems. With respect to biological sciences, the tremendous diversity of biota and ecosystems in SSA provides extraordinary opportunities for improved understanding of patterns and controls of biodiversity and fundamental ecological processes. Unique biological aspects of the SSA environment include spatially extensive grazing ecosystems with high biodiversity of mammalian fauna; high rates of biodiversity discovery; highly diverse and rapidly changing terrestrial ecosystems, landscapes and land use patterns, unique human-wildlife-livestock interfaces influencing the ecology and consequences of disease; and steep, extensive gradients of terrestrial and coastal zone environments (Fig. 1).

Africa presents an unprecedented wealth of research opportunities in earth and climate sciences. SSA in particular provides unique opportunities for advancing our understanding of atmospheric processes and improving climate models. Tropical Africa is the second largest source of latent heating in the world, and several African climate systems have both direct and indirect linkages to weather developments in other regions. Research on the SSA region can enhance our basic understanding of the inter-relationships between biological processes and climate, the role of natural and anthropogenic aerosols, and our general understanding of the causes, patterns, and consequences of global climate change. Limited climate change adaptation/mitigation mechanisms (policies) have been developed by many SSA countries, although the region is potentially one of the most vulnerable to extreme climate anomalies and climate change (Fig. 2). Endowed with complex terrain and enormous mineral resources, SSA also provides unparalleled research opportunities in geology, geophysics, mineralogy, and the influence of geological processes on ecosystems. Recent significant advancements in geosciences research in SSA have been driven in large part by the continent's mineral wealth.

With respect to the social sciences, SSA is a unique region of mostly developing countries where accelerated economic transition is driving rapid environmental change. It is a region with particularly strong linkages among ecology, sociology, and economics and where human livelihoods are directly linked to environmental integrity and biodiversity conservation. SSA provides tremendous scientific opportunities for better understanding of the causes, patterns, and consequences of ecosystem transformations, changing land use, economic shocks, disease, and climate, their effects on poverty dynamics and the environment, and implications of high population diversity for regional environmental impacts.