UNCW researchers prepare for oil slick

by Brian Freskos
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Staff photo by Allison Breiner Potter

Yossi Shirazi, from left, Meg Young and Chad McPeters prepare to bag sediment samples collected on Wrightsville Beach Tuesday, June 22, as part of oil spill mitigation and beach renourishment research conducted by a team of graduate students and alumni from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.


Equipped with containers and spoons, vials and plastic bags, teams of researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) descended on Wrightsville Beach armed and preparing to defend the coast against the potential effects of the BP oil spill.

As crude from the company’s Deepwater Horizon rig continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, three teams of researchers fanned out across two sites on the morning of June 22 to collect sediment samples in an effort to establish a baseline reading so authorities can measure the damage should the slick reach these shores.

Dr. Larry Cahoon, a UNCW biological oceanographer who has served as the university’s front man for information pertaining to oil impacts on the North Carolina coast, expressed confidence that—in the event oil washes ashore—public, state and federal authorities will utilize these samples to mount litigation and hold the responsible parties accountable.

"This is going to be the mother of all liability actions," Cahoon, the leader of Tuesday’s sediment research team, said in a round of interviews with reporters on the beach strand.

Near the north end, Victoria Miller, a science teacher from South Brunswick High School working with Cahoon as part of a technology preparation grant, knelt down in the moist sand and watched her knees sink.

As waves washed up around her, she spooned watery sand like pancake batter into a brown plastic bottle until it was full. Then she screwed on the lid.

Later, that sand would be taken and frozen, Miller explained, where it will stay under watch, ready to link BP and other responsible parties to environmental and economic damage should oil wash onto shore.

Having this baseline reading arms scientists with the information required to paint a picture of sediment features and ecologies before and after the oil wreaks damage—should that occur.

"There’s very tiny risk from that, but the hazards would be huge," Cahoon said, reiterating what seems to be a widespread sentiment among scientists—that there’s a wee chance BP oil will make contact with this coast in a form that would cause measurable harm.

Tar balls, which are likely to spin onto the beach strand, pose very little risk to surrounding shorelines, researchers say.

Tuesday’s sampling was actually an extension of a two-year, grant-funded study, in which university scientists have carried out analysis and GPS monitoring since 2008 to determine the impact of beach renourishment on local ecologies, and specifically how renourishment affects the food chain.

A day prior, a separate team had come to sample fish populations, Cahoon said.

Kelly Stull, a master’s student in UNCW’s marine science department, said teams were examining sediment chlorophyll and sediment DNA, which together provide a window into the ecosystem’s food chain by giving measurable evidence as to the health of pure living biomass, phytoplankton and zooplankton, and thus the overall state of the ecologies.

Zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, and juvenile fish feed on zooplankton, she said. If a link in the chain is missing, it could impose a debilitating effect on fish populations and other forms of ocean life.

Sea Grant provided $72,000 in funding for this study, and then tacked on an additional $6,000 so researchers could gather baseline sediment samples in preparations for the oil spill.

As for beach renourishment, Cahoon said it seems to have had little or no negative impact on shoreline ecologies, though he warned that his statement was pending more examination before researchers make a definitive conclusion.

What he is seeing, though, is that renourishment, if conducted properly with sand grains equivalent in size to those that naturally occur on the beach strand, can actually stimulate reproduction.

Oil, however, should it creep through the Florida Keys and into the Gulf Stream, will give researchers another, more pessimistic, phenomenon to examine.

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