HAVE you ever wondered why incidents of extreme weather are on the rise? Why there is toxic seafood from the ocean? Why is it certain diseases keep recurring in certain areas? Why it is becoming more dangerous to be exposed to the sun than ever before?
The answers lie in the air, ocean and land where air-sea interactions and air-land interactions are the most important mechanisms influencing climate change, extreme weather and episodic occurrences of harmful microbes and pathogens in the aquatic environment.
And this is the focus of the Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences (IOES) at University of Malaya (UM) where research is being carried out to improve the ability to predict and subsequently reduce the impacts and losses caused by these phenomena.
IOES was named a Higher Institution Centre of Excellence under the National Priority Area of Environment and Climate Change by the Higher Education Ministry in 2014. One of its achievements is the recognition of the Atmospheric Science Centre at its Bachok Marine Research Station (BMRS) as a Global Atmospheric Watch Centre by the World Meteorological Organisation last year.
This means its meteorological data is available to researchers working on climate change all over the world.
IOES director Professor Dr Phang Siew Moi said: “All our data — the pollutants, carbon dioxide that we are monitoring, atmospheric changes that we are keeping track of — is accessible to researchers worldwide to predict climate change, storms and extreme weather, for example.”
The air, ocean and land are intimately connected; when something happens to the ocean, it affects the air and, of
course, the land. Examples are the occurrence of tsunamis and increase in pollutants.
“Pollutants and waste discharged into the rivers and oceans cause blooms of pathogens and harmful algae — all the toxins causing fish death — which affect our health, our food and the environment.
“The institute looks into all these connections that no other entity is researching into. Our niche is studying all these interactions and how they affect one another. This is a very new approach in the country. Globally, a lot of environmental studies have taken this approach.”
A LOT OF LIFE HAPPENS, A LOT OF THINGS HAPPEN
Elaborating on the significance of the recognition given to the Atmospheric Science Centre, UM deputy vice chancellor (research and innovation) Professor Dr Noorsaadah Abd. Rahman said global interest is heightened by the fact that the centre is in the tropics.
“Everything happens in the tropics. There are not as many interactions of life in the Arctic and Antarctic — the polar regions — as in the tropics. The tropics are an area where a lot of life happens and a lot of things happen. The atmosphere and warm climate affect life in the tropics and spread to the temperate region. That is why researchers from the temperate region are very interested in BMRS.
“And at the moment, it is the only marine station with the facilities to monitor the interactions,” she said.
Phang added that Bachok is a very special location as the east coast is where the warm air collides with winds of the north.
“We get pollutants from the north especially from China — it is the biggest emitter of carbon — and the south. When hot air rises — called forcing — around the Bachok area, the temperature forces everything up together with the pollutants into the upper atmosphere.
“And they get distributed everywhere around the world. Hence the importance of these atmospheric studies in this part of the world.”
BRMS has collaborations with the University of Cambridge and University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, Malaysian Meteorological Department and other parties from countries such as New Zealand and Germany.
A joint laboratory for marine science and technology between IOES and China’s First Institute of Oceanography (FIO) has been established to look into the atmospheric elements of the ocean.
“We are setting up a buoy to monitor changes in the ocean. It’s a multimillion ringgit project. The buoy will be located 100km offshore and it will offer Professor Datuk Dr Azizan Abu Samah and his team valuable data for extreme weather prediction,” said Phang, adding that Azizan is well-known for his Antarctic atmospheric research as well as flood forecasting work.
In another partnership with China’s Third Institute of Oceanography, both parties have been awarded a five-year grant under the China-Asean Maritime Cooperation Fund for an ecology project.
“IOES is seeking permission from the Malaysian National Security Council for a project in collaboration with FIO. And we continue to seek funding from the government for projects. Funding is needed for very fundamental work as we need background knowledge before we can apply or translate research.
“Malaysia still needs to invest (in these research work) despite investment from partners as the data is important for the country’s sustainability as well. We share data but not everything due to security reasons. The protocol is in place — we decide who gets the data,” added Phang.
Associate Professor Dr Lim Po Teen researches into harmful algae blooms (HAB) at IOES.
HAB comprise microalgae which is present in the water all the time. Due to climate change in the form of weather changes, temperature increase, more light exposure, and nutrients of discharged waste into the water, they start to bloom and the surface of the ocean becomes red, for example, because of the pigments of the blooms.
The algae produce toxins. In low amounts, this does not matter. But in large amounts, the bloom will be eaten by zooplanktons which will then be eaten by prawns and so forth. By the time affected seafood gets to humans, there will be many harmful toxins.
“There were incidents of HAB in Sabah where the Fishery Department issued directives against collecting shellfish to fishermen. But some ignored the directive which resulted in the consumption of poisonous shellfish by the public.
“The level of toxin varies from one organism to another. That’s why there are cases of paralysis of the respiratory system from eating toxic seafood — starting from numbness of the lips to the point where artificial respiratory measures are needed. There is also amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) which can cause permanent short-term memory loss, brain damage and death in severe cases,” said Lim.
Malaysia, he added, has not really been affected until now. “In the United States, a lot of marine life, mammals and birds were affected with ASP in 2015-2016 because the scale of HAB extended from California to Alaska.
“We started our study five years ago. The species are very common in our waters and we collected samples from the Malacca Straits all the way to Sabah. Malaysia has 30 out of the 43 species of HAB found in the world.
“We work with the Fishery Department to monitor HAB to reduce the impact on the aquaculture industry as well as ensure food safety for the public. We are trying to understand why they bloom rather than just issue a warning. The future direction is to find a method to clean up and
control HAB. Researchers need long-time data to look into the how and when,” he added.
Associate Professor Dr Lee Choon Weng and Dr Bong Chui Wei are looking into anthropogenic impacts on estuaries and coastal waters, especially with reference to pathogens.
“After the Kelantan floods in 2015, a lot of run-offs from land carried bacteria into the rivers. There is no baseline data on what this bacteria harvested. The research team takes a three-pronged approach — focus on E. coli; cholera, which is endemic in Kelantan; and antibiotic resistance which is a major problem in the world as declared by the United Nations,” said Lee.
The team is looking look into antibiotic resistance genes in bacteria and how they spread.
“The project comprises, among others, measuring antibiotic residue in our waters. No one knows its effect on aqua culture. Funding is needed for monitoring efforts and analyses. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia will lead in this area. What we need is the equipment, researchers and the database for this project.”
FROM LAW TO MARINE BIOTECHNOLOGY
The Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences has six research units:
This unit is dedicated to understanding and improving the ocean’s productivity and living resources in service of society. Research focuses on the biogeochemistry, productivity, living resources and environment of marine ecosystems from coasts to open seas, and from the sea surface to the sea floor.
The unit supports inter-disciplinary research and several on-going research benefits from the active collaboration within the Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences, and between other research institutions.
The unit aims to research into and enhance marine living resources for food security to develop new products and provide sustained services through the use of modern cutting-edge biotechnological techniques. Focus is also on the use of “omics” technologies to understand how organisms adapt to different environmental stresses such as temperature and ultraviolet radiation.
In addition, to optimise the use of living resources, it studies the impact of pathogens and parasites on certain organisms and ecosystems, such as the coral holobiont.
AIR-OCEAN-LAND INTERACTIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE
The unit is dedicated to the development of observation and simulation technologies for land, ocean and atmospheric systems, and contributes towards acquisition of coastal, oceanic and atmospheric data.
The data acquired will be useful for sustaining coastal and oceanic ecosystems, improving the health and productivity of the seas, and understanding and predicting ocean-related climate change.
COASTAL PROCESSES STUDIES AND COASTAL ENGINEERING
The unit’s research covers marine geology, coastal geomorphology, coastal and ocean hydrological processes, sea floor imagery, nutrient flux and ecosystem connectivities. Coastal engineering and bioengineering technologies for coastal protection are included.
MARITIME CULTURE AND GEOPOLITICS
The unit conducts research into the humanities and social sciences dimensions of the sea. Focus is on the history and culture of maritime communities, their social-economic development, ports and policies, shipping, sea routes as well as issues in international relations pertaining to the sea.
MARITIME LAW AND POLICY
The unit focuses on comparative study and research on the law of the sea with emphasis on the Asean region. The current thrust is to focus on the models of cooperation in the South China Sea. It also specialises in research into the maritime carriage of goods by sea and in admiralty law.