Before the world economic summit in Scotland last summer, the science academies of the G8 countries issued a statement stressing the "fundamental importance of science, technology and innovation in tackling a wide range of problems facing Africa."
Scientific expertise is particularly needed for the harnessing of that continent's vast natural resources as a force for economic growth. To foster that expertise, Penn State geophysicist Andrew Nyblade and colleagues in South Africa recently launched AfricaArray, a 20-year initiative to train and educate Africans in scientific fields vital to natural resource development.
"The primary goal is education," Nyblade says. Initially, AfricaArray will focus on developing the geophysics program at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, a founding partner along with Penn State. It will then expand educational programs to other universities across the continent. African students will be allowed to work for up to 6 months per year at affiliated universities outside Africa, Nyblade says.
But AfricaArray also has an important research goal: To improve and update the seismic network spanning the African continent. That network, Nyblade says, is an unevenly spaced grid of outdated sensors, with large areas still uncovered. The researchers hope both to upgrade existing facilities and to build new observatories that may eventually include other kinds of geophysical and environmental sensors.
An improved seismic network would help mitigate earthquake disasters related to mining, a problem which claims many lives each year in South Africa, Nyblade says. "There are also geophysical features in the crust that are of potential economic value. Seismic data can be used for locating these, as well as water resources."
Such data should also finally solve one of the important mysteries of geophysics: the exact nature of the so-called African superplume, a large hotspot in the mantle beneath eastern and southern Africa. According to Nyblade, the superplume is "the biggest seismic anomaly anywhere. It's a first-order feature on our planet."
AfricaArray is being run under the auspices of the Alliance for Earth Sciences, Engineering
and Development in Africa, and was recently awarded $3 million from the National Science Foundation, and additional core funding from the South African National Research Foundation. Nyblade and his African colleagues are currently seeking additional governmental and industrial support.