Curtin Baram Project begins new phase

Three main areas of research, conducted by Curtin University in Baram and the sea offshore Miri. — Photos by Curtin Sarawak and Cecilia Sman

Three main areas of research, conducted by Curtin University in Baram and the sea offshore Miri. — Photos by Curtin Sarawak and Cecilia Sman

MIRI: Curtin University is actively conducting research in the Baram Region to ascertain the status and the underlying mechanisms operating within the ecosystem.

The research project titled Curtin Baram Project is an integrated series of studies, covering some 24,000 square kilometres of the Baram region from the highlands to the Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park (MSCRNP) offshore Miri.

Several teams of researchers from Curtin University are currently conducting studies in different parts of the region.

According to Professor Clem Kuek, director of the Curtin Sarawak Research Institute (CSRI) and Curtin University Sarawak’s dean of Research & Development, the data collected in all the studies within the Curtin Baram Project will have lasting value, providing reference points for research-informed management of the ecosystem of the peoples in the region.

In the Upper Baram catchment, associate professor Dominique Dodge-Wan and her team from the Department of Applied Geology at Curtin Sarawak are mapping land use via information from satellite imagery.

“It’s important to know the types of land use in the 9,000 square kilometre Baram Catchment because changing land use can impact soil erosion,” Dodge-Wan said.

Soil erosion can impact not only the sediment load carried by the Baram River but also where this load eventually deposits.

Thus, the relationship between the materials carried out to sea by the Baram River and the offshore Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park is something which Curtin University is seeking to establish.

From the Upper Baram catchment through to the sea off Miri, another team from Curtin Sarawak’s Department of Applied Geology, led by associate professor Ramasamy Nagarajan, is studying the distribution of heavy metals and their geochemistry.

Water, river sediments and plant materials are regularly sampled at various points along the Baram River to build baseline data set on the presence of heavy metals.

The baseline established for heavy metals will be an important reference point for assessing the impact of any development in the Baram Catchment into the future.

“When higher than baseline amounts of toxic metals are found in the Baram environment, it may indicate disturbance in the landscape which will need attending to,” Nagarajan said.

After processing, heavy metal content of sediment and other samples is determined, using precision instrumentation at Curtin University which can measure concentrations down to parts per billion.


Insight into research

The Curtin Baram Project enters a new phase this month when research begins on Sarawak’s largest and first marine national park — the Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park.

“The economic value of the park has been estimated at RM1.93 million. Sonar mapping of selected areas in the park which contain 28 patch reefs will signal the start of the offshore phase of the Curtin Baram Project,” Kuek said.  Living and old corals will be cored to reveal sediment and sea temperature histories. A record of historical sea temperatures will enable this place of the world to contribute to global climate change data.

Current patterns of sediment distribution from the Baram River to the reefs in the park will be determined over an extended period.

Fish populations will be estimated, using Baited Remote Underwater Video to enable an assessment of the efficacy of the Park.

The marine biologists who will work on the Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park (MSCRNP) are Dr Mick O’Leary, Dr Nicola Browne, Dr Jennifer McIlwain and Dr Iain Parnum of Curtin University’s Department of Environment and Agriculture, while Dr Jens Zinke and Christina Brown are from the Department of Earth Sciences, Institute of Geological Sciences, Paleontology, Freie Universität Berlin.


Project funding

According to Kuek, Sarawak Energy Bhd is providing RM2 million for the land use mapping and heavy metal studies.

The MSCRNP studies, estimated to cost RM1.5 million so far, will be seed-funded by CSRI while the Department of Environment and Agriculture at Curtin University will provide support in kind.

In addition, Curtin University Sarawak is funding both PhD and masters projects within the Baram Project.

This write-up is the first in the series, and the upcoming series will be on research for MSCRNP, its progress and impact on the ecosystem and as well as contribution to global climate change data.