Friday, June 27, 2014

Reddy Lab team back out in the field

Reddy Lab Gulf Coast Collection Update - Summer 2014

Mike McNulty showing off the Deepwater
Horizon sand patties collected at Perdido Key
in Alabama. Photo credit Bob Nelson.
Two oil spills have kept us busy. One is pretty obscure, the Kirby, which spilled 168,000 gallons of fuel oil in Galveston Bay in March 2014. The other is the iconic Deepwater Horizon (DwH) that led to the release of 160 million gallons of crude oil from the seafloor of the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Collectively, we strive to understand how petroleum hydrocarbons change over time as they are exposed to different environmental conditions. So far, our lab has found that many compounds from the DwH have broken down due to microbes, sunlight, and evaporation. And we have identified some compounds that appear to be impervious to Mother Nature. We are observing some of these processes, too, from the Kirby spill. We continue to collect samples from these spills to document whether any additional changes are occurring or whether breakdown has ceased. 

In this latest installment of fieldwork, WHOI's Bob Nelson and I, Bob Swarthout, traveled with undergraduates Bryan James (University of Toronto), Ben Freiberg (Skidmore College), and Mike McNulty (Boston College), all veterans of Chris Reddy’s lab from previous summers, and newcomers Thomas Rugh (starting at Cal Poly Pamona this Fall), to collect oil samples along the gulf coast between Pensacola, Florida, and Galveston, Texas. 

The first day of this trip involved stops at four long-term study sites between Pensacola, FL and Biloxi, MS. At Perdido Key State Park, we found small sand-patties, oil mixed with sand and shells, with the characteristic orange color of the oil that was released from the Macondo well after the DwH disaster. While we cannot confirm the source of this oil in the field, our laboratory fingerprinting analysis will eventually determine so. The fact that even four years after the spill we are still finding oil at this location approximately 200 miles from the location of the spill is evidence of the widespread impact and longevity of marine oil spills. Yet, its pretty hard to find these samples. It’s not like what you see on TV. You need a keen eye on many beaches to find just a few. We also found numerous tar balls that washed ashore with rafts of Sargassum seaweed. The "hockey puck-like” appearance points to an oil unlike the DwH. They are more likely evidence of the vast number of unknown oil spills and natural oil seeps that contribute oil to the world's oceans. 

At our second stop, Fort Morgan within Alabama's Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, new Reddy lab member, Thomas Rugh, immediately got in on the action finding sand patties and a multitude of tar balls in the Sargassum along the high-tideline of the beach. Field sampling trips like these are excellent opportunities to engage young scientists early on in their career and to link the laboratory work to real world environmental impacts. 

Summer student Thomas Rugh shows off the first sand patty he found at Fort Morgan, Alabama.
While this patty was small we found larger patties all along the beach. Photo credit Bryan James.

The last two stops of the day were in the Dauphin Island jetty and beach in Alabama. Returning guest student Ben Frieberg scrambled through the rocks of the jetty to scrape oil samples from the rocks. In contrast to the large number of samples collected at the Dauphin Island beach in 2013, this year turned up few samples. It is difficult to predict where and when we will be able to find oil samples because of variable weather conditions and the ever changing coastal landscape. We were ushered from the beach by an approaching thunderstorm at sunset, which accompanied us along the way to our hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi. 
Ben Frieberg uses spatulas to scrape oil from rocks along the jetty at Dauphin Island in Alabama.
These oil samples are likely to be exposed to different weathering processes than the sand patties found at other locations offering insights into the relative effects of each weathering process. Photo credit Bob Swarthout.
Long time Reddy lab members Mike McNulty (left)
and Bryan James (right) collect sand patties
found in the surf at Ship Island in Mississippi.
Photo credit Bob Swarthout.
We spent our second day sampling the perimeter of Ship Island off the shore of Gulfport, Mississippi. This site never fails to produce samples and the experienced eyes of Bryan James and Mike McNulty found sand patties all along the beach and rolling in the surf. 

Our work over these two days has attracted the attention of several beach goers. I am constantly impressed by how interested Gulf coast residents are in our science. Seeing experienced science ambassadors like Bob Nelson interacting with these residents shows how effective communication of complex science can invigorate public interest and help stakeholders see a tangible return on their investment in research. Ultimately, communicating our work to a broader audience is one of the most important parts of the scientific process because it allows others to apply our results to other areas of science and public policy. 

WHOI’s Bob Nelson (center) explains the purpose of our work to interested gulf coast residents
at Fort Morgan in Alabama. Photo credit Bob Swarthout.

The following day brought us into Louisiana, where we were joined by Hector Koolen, a Ph.D. student at University of Campinas in Brazil. We looked for samples at two of our long-term sites: Grand Isle and Elmer’s Island. These sites are periodically re-oiled by oil from DWH and have produced many samples in the past, but this year was different. Elmer’s Island was closed to the public earlier this year as the municipality worked to clean-up oil that washed ashore. These beaches were choked with Sargassum seaweed making it extremely difficult to find any DwH sand patties. Tar balls from other sources were abundant at both sites, but DwH samples eluded us. Hector was struck by how many tar balls we were able to find, but also by the “less-than-pristine” conditions of the beaches we sampled. In addition to the seaweed, the beaches were also full of trash, something that Hector did not expect to find in the United States. However, living with marine debris and oil spills is part of life along the Gulf Coast, and in spite of the seaweed, garbage, and tar balls, local residents were still enjoying the beaches and fishing. 

From Louisiana our route turns south towards Texas and the site of the Kirby oil spill. Hopefully, our efforts in Galveston will not be similarly stymied by seaweed! 

Post submitted by: 
Bob Swarthout, The Reddy Lab
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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