Research Continues for Island University Professor Despite Temporary Equipment Loss During Harvey

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Despite research set-backs after Hurricane Harvey, one Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researcher remains positive. Dr. Xinping Hu, assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, was forced to terminate a project early and thought that he lost one of the sensors deployed in the field due to Harvey. The instrument, a YSI salinity and temperature sensor, was miraculously recovered by his colleague Terry Palmer, a senior research associate in the Department of Life Sciences, during a recent diving trip to the Port Aransas ship channel.

He counts himself lucky that he and his Ph.D. student, Melissa McCutcheon, didn’t lose as much as they had feared. Thanks to a $9,814 Scientific Research Recovery Grant from the Gulf Research Program, the two look forward to repairing the recovered sensor that had been sitting on the seafloor until May 11, and to continue their research on “Coastal and Estuarine Acidification.”

“We thought the sensor would have never been found again. So, we were thrilled to get these funds from the Gulf Research Program to replace what we thought was a lost piece of equipment,” said Hu. “In times like these, you need to gather whatever resources are available to continue your work as best you can. I encourage fellow scientists who were also affected by the storm to do the same.”

Hurricane Harvey impacted many communities in the Gulf Coast region, leaving devastation and substantial loss. While many of the buildings at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi emerged from the storm unscathed, the buildings at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI), one of the Island University’s close partners, suffered substantial damage. Even with Harvey barreling towards their facility, Dr. Zhanfei Liu and two of his students were able to retrieve two of Hu’s sensors from the UTMSI research pier, located in the Port Aransas ship channel which joins the Mission-Aransas Estuary to the Gulf of Mexico, where the sensors were deployed. In the midst of their own evacuation, the YSI sensor that was submerged underwater was left behind. Following the storm, a loose oil rig drifted from its dock and hit the pier and sunk everything onboard, which included Hu’s sensor.

“Despite working to evacuate themselves, my colleagues were still able to lift two of the sensors deployed at the lower deck of the pier. Each sensor was worth around $20,000,” said Hu. “Instead of a total loss, we only needed to send them back for replacing a few essential parts. Without the UTMSI colleagues, we would have suffered a much bigger loss than we did.”

To provide support for a fellow institute of higher education, the Island University’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) invited UTMSI researchers and students to use their space to work until their labs were rebuilt. Hu also shared lab space with Liu’s students, until their lab became useable again in April.

“Our two institutions have been helping each other throughout these difficult times – during and after Harvey,” said Hu. “While some of our equipment and buildings have been damaged, our bonds of collaboration have only grown stronger.”

As for his own work, Hu plans to continue moving forward. The sensors were gathering data as part of a national study to monitor estuaries throughout the country, organized by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Estuary Program. Hu and McCutcheon partnered with scientists from UTMSI to use their research pier. While the loss of UTMSI’s research pier prevents them from redeploying the sensors, they will still work with the ten months of data they were able to collect before Harvey. They also plan to continue boat-based low-resolution monitoring until the UTMSI pier is rebuilt.

“Losing the pier was a big setback, but we will still be presenting what we were able to gather as part of this project,” said Hu. “Despite being cut short, this data will be a valuable contribution and we’re incredibly fortunate to have been this lucky.”

*Research reported in this article was supported by the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine under award number 2000009312. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Gulf Research Program or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.