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Widening our  
Underwater Horizons

Wave of the Future

Key areas of focus currently comprise:

  • Marine ecology and microbial ecology

  • Oceanography and coastal zone processes

  • Eutrophication and ecotoxicology

  • Environmental hydrodynamics and modeling

  • Wave-soil-structure interactions

Coastal waters provide a rich environment for life, with an incredible diversity of plants and animals located in the aquatic zone just beyond the seashore. However, with a large percentage of the world's population living within a narrow band adjacent to this coastal area, the deterioration of water quality and coastal resources has become an increasingly noticeable problem.

Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region offers a series of contrasting marine environments, including estuarine, coastal and oceanic, within a relatively short distance. As one of the fastest growing economic areas in the world, this region has also experienced varying degrees of pollution in many areas.

Marine research has therefore become a core research area of HKUST's Institute for the Environment (IENV), presenting a significant opportunity to extend our understanding of these environments, both in terms of their natural propensities and the impact of man-made pollutants.

Our present studies indicate a need for more comprehensive and world-class research into specific geographical regions. For example, most marine pollution studies have been conducted on temperate estuaries and there are few large-scale studies investigating the impact of pollution in sub-tropical estuaries. Thus, our research in the Pearl River Delta region will make an important contribution to global knowledge.

The range of specializations among HKUST faculty members, IENV's interdisciplinary approach, and the excellent research facilities available open the way for major advances in our comprehension of different marine environments. The results of such pioneering work should greatly improve prospects for a sustainable future.


Frontier Research

Some of the exciting marine research areas being explored by IENV:
  • Ecology of marine organisms, including bacteria, plankton and invertebrates; microbial extremophiles; biofouling and anti-fouling; natural products from marine organisms; microbial biodiversity; molecular biology and pollutant toxicity; ecotoxicity and the transfer of heavy metals in the food chain; biosensors for monitoring pollutants; eutrophication including algal blooms, nutrient dynamics and dissolved oxygen supply to bottom waters, understanding the physical and chemical properties of estuarine and coastal waters and their influence on biological organisms.
  • Environmental hydrodynamics; modeling and predicting the dispersion and transport of pollutants in water bodies and a coupled hydrodynamic-ecosystem-chemistry model providing a decision-making tool for marine environmental policy-makers.
  • Wave loading on undersea slopes, off-shore foundations and structure and retaining structures against wave loadings.

Studies being carried out

Biotech Breakthroughs
Studies in marine biotechnology include the search for bioactive compounds from marine organisms. Research is focused on bacteria that grow in biofilms and their compounds that enhance (biofouling) or deter (anti-fouling) settling of organisms on surfaces such as drilling platforms, ships and pipelines. Discoveries include the identification of several highly potent antifouling and antibiotic compounds from sponges, seaweeds, and the bacteria and fungi living on these organisms. (Pix in Newslette- Winter 2004)

Estuary Insights
Studies of the Pearl River Delta region can increase knowledge of the impact of pollution on sub-tropical estuaries. Various chemical pollutants (for example, heavy metals) and emerging chemicals (for example, pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors) are increasing and their sources, biological impact and water transport mechanisms will be identified.

Looking Ahead
Research into bacteria, picoplankton, micro- and mesozooplankton and associated hydrodynamics of the coastal flow field is boosting the sparse information available for Hong Kong waters. Our longer-term goal is to develop a three-dimensional model of physical-biological coupling for Hong Kong waters and a forecasting model system for various biological events.

Go With the Flow
We are seeking greater understanding of shallow wake flow behavior and the subsequent flow patterns and mixing processes in the wake of natural protrusions. This is critical for the prediction, assessment, analysis and mitigation of pollution problems in air and water and is particularly important for Hong Kong, which includes over 200 islands of varying sizes. The flow pattern in the wake of these islands is a decisive factor in locating outfall discharges, mud disposal, cooling intakes, reclaimed land, marine parks and marine reserves.

Red Alert
We are studying the ecology of red tides and the relationship between these algal blooms and physical processes and eutrophication resulting from excessive nutrients in the western waters of Hong Kong. These studies have particular relevance to sewage treatment in Hong Kong and the control of algal biomass production and subsequent low oxygen in the bottom water.