GOVERNMENTS around the world are looking more closely at how to minimise the impact of natural disasters and provide more adequate warning systems to reduce the loss of life. The widespread destruction and huge loss of life suffered by countries on the Indian Ocean rim as a result of the earthquakes and massive tsunami on Boxing Day last year, has focused attention on what should be done to prevent such a catastrophe happening again and on the work of those trained to read environmental signs. The Hong Kong government insists there is minimal chance of a tsunami hitting these shores, but it is fully alert to the real threats posed by typhoons, flooding and landslips. Paul Harrison, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the tsunami had highlighted the importance of monitoring earthquakes and assessing their possible after-effects. If automated equipment is used, the number of scientists needed is relatively few, but there are a range of jobs associated with the analysis and interpretation of data. To create a record and help predict what might happen to Hong Kong, Adam Switzer, a PhD earth science graduate from the University of Wollongong, Australia, is investigating onshore palaeosol deposits and looking for evidence of large storm surges. His findings from coastal areas reveal that Hong Kong has been subject to major water surge damage. 'There is strong evidence that Hong Kong has been battered by some ferocious storms, many of which appear to have occurred before living memory,' Dr Switzer said. Because of its seasonal typhoons, earth scientists see South China as an important location to put their knowledge to good use. And, as one the world's most urbanised and fastest developing regions, the Pearl River Delta, in particular, provides opportunities for practical research into environmental sustainability, the impact and mitigation of flooding, and protecting areas of dense population during adverse weather conditions. Environmental experts and geoscientists, therefore, are playing an increasingly important role in predicting future hazards such as landslips, as well as offering advice on construction projects, land use and general measures to protect the environment. For example, the Hong Kong Geotechnical Engineering Office and the Civil Engineering Department have developed and carried out some of the best landslip monitoring and preventive measures anywhere in the world. In addressing parallel concerns about air pollution, water quality and the treatment of solid waste, the government is becoming a major investor in environmental technologies and services. These extend to controlling noise limits, measuring air particulates and monitoring landfills. Besides these initiatives, other key players are taking steps to improve things. Developers of local infrastructure projects are turning to environmental consultants for impact assessments and specific industries are paying closer attention to the need for oil-separation equipment, air-ventilation systems and more energy efficient manufacturing processes. Those interested in becoming earth scientists need to obtain university-level qualifications. A bachelor's degree in geology or geophysics is adequate for some entry-level jobs, but opportunities with better prospects for advancement usually require at least a master's degree in environmental, civil or geological engineering, geology or geophysics. Areas of specialisation for earth scientists include the study of land formation, soil and rock mechanics, soft soil engineering, piling foundations, slope engineering, landslide investigation and natural terrain hazards. Tertiary institutes, professional associations and the Environmental Protection Department regularly organise academic courses and conferences for professionals and technicians working in the field. Short courses provide more specialised training. Various organisations have set up scholarships and offer sponsorship for those conducting specific research projects. The scope of work for environmental scientists may include identifying and reducing the source of pollutants that affect people, wildlife and natural habitats. They may be required to analyse and report measurements and observations of air, water, soil and other sources, and this may involve fieldwork and time in the laboratory. The underlying objective is to make recommendations on how best to clean up and improve the environment. Dr Switzer said Hong Kong is already home to world-class laboratory services. 'The research facilities and degree-level environmental programmes place it in a strong position to develop an internationally recognised base for evolving advanced environmental science practices,' he said. He has been awarded an Endeavour Australia/Cheung Kong grant to study at the University of Hong Kong's department of earth sciences, which has one of the most advanced soil core samplers in Asia. Down to earth The government is providing funds to support environmental research and awareness projects. Companies across all industry sectors are showing concern about their environmental activities and in many cases hiring environmental professionals. Hong Kong earth scientists often work indoors and outdoors on air, water and noise pollution projects. A bachelor's degree in geology or geophysics is adequate for some entry-level earth science jobs, but better job opportunities with good advancement potential usually require at least a master's degree.