When a pipeline break in October leaked thousands of gallons of oil into the waters off of Huntington Beach, the visible harm to local wildlife was almost immediate, as crude-covered birds and fish began appearing on beaches.
But what about below the surface? Did the spill that closed beaches and fisheries for weeks impact the marine communities made up of the tiniest organisms that cross the sea floor? And if it did, what can those microbes tell us about the reaction of the broader ecosystem off California’s coast?
Those are some driving questions behind research being conducted by UC Irvine Ph.D. students Joana Tavares and Melissa Brock, who, with the help of other UCI scientists, have been sampling and analyzing ocean water off the Newport Beach pier for months, beginning immediately after the oil spill.
As part of an Earth Day event at the pier on Friday, April 22, they presented the vision for their Southern California Oil Spill Project.
The two said they have been making trips to the pier weekly, where they launch bright red buckets attached to ropes off the side into the water below. The samples they hoist up are transferred into bottles to be processed back at the lab.
With help from experts across various departments at UCI and UC schools in Santa Barbara and San Diego, samples have been analyzed for different chemical compounds, and genomic sequencing is performed on bacteria in the water.
“We don’t have an understanding at all about how oil spills impact coastal California microbes,” Brock said at the pier Thursday. “There have been no previous studies that have looked at this, and so this is really kind of like the pilot study for looking at how the local community is impacted.”
The researchers want to know whether microbial communities changed in response to the oil, in terms of their makeup and function, and how long it takes them to return to normal. Some microbes eat away at crude, so understanding how the organisms here responded in the presence of oil could help in future spill responses.
“It’s perfect food for many microbes, and so they’re happily eating it up,” said Adam Martiny, professor of Earth system science and eco and evolutionary biology at UCI. “And that’s what we really need to understand, because there’s sort of a race between how quickly the microbes can eat it, versus how could quickly it can spread into places where we don’t want oil.”
He noted that oil-degrading microbes ate up the majority of crude after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, scientists have better lab tools than were available during that time, Martiny said, ones “that can really tell us a lot about how bacteria degrade the oil and hopefully that can give us some hints about how we can stimulate that process.”
Understanding how the presence of crude impacts organisms like phytoplankton can also give insight into effects on marine life on up the food chain.
“If you have a major shift in the base of the food web, you’re changing larger organisms’ food sources,” Brock said. “And so how long does that shift last? Does that shift lasts long enough to have these larger impacts? Those are still things that we’re still exploring.”
UCI has the benefit of a decade of research its scientists have been collecting at the Newport Beach pier, taking samples weekly to study the organisms in the water, which will help today’s researchers compare their recent and future samples and test hypotheses.
Tavares said the project will act a “blueprint” for future researchers to study impacts of oil in their waters.
“Someone else in a different location that is dealing with an oil spill can then take these steps, these protocols that we put together using these not-often-used methods and then reproduce that somewhere else,” she said.
Preliminary data from the studies is expected to be presented next month at UCI’s undergraduate research symposium, Brock said.