IRVINE, Calif. — While the sheen from the major oil spill in October in Orange County has dissipated, some local scientists are taking a deep dive into how the spill may have affected some microscopic creatures.

Joana Tavares, a Ph.D. candidate in Earth system science, and Melissa Brock, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, are spearheading the newly formed Southern California Oil Spill Project at the University of California, Irvine.

What You Need To Know

  • Marine microorganisms are vital to the food web

  • They help capture carbon dioxide dissolved in the water

  • Bacteria in the ocean can act as a "cleanup crew"

  • Results could be available to the public in summer 2022

The researchers say they hope to figure out whether there have been any longterm effects to marine microorganisms from the recent oil spill.

Tavares says through analysis of ocean samples — which were collected three times a week using red buckets and ropes immediately following the October oil spill at the Newport Beach Pier and now once weekly — the team hopes to answer questions such as, “Did this oil spill create a big enough disturbance that is made up of these microorganisms to change in response to the disturbance?”

Tavares noted marine microorganisms as "so important," saying they are tiny but a huge part of the food web.

"They’re going to be feeding other smaller organisms like tiny little krill, which will then help feed the fish. So, in a way, these microorganism help support fisheries," she said. "These microorganisms that we call phytoplankton will actually be taking CO2, carbon dioxide, that is dissolved in the water that came from the atmosphere.”

Taveres added that she hopes to learn which organisms thrived or died during the spill and how long the spill effected the populations. They’ll compare their data back at a lab on campus to data from ocean samples collected for a decade under normal conditions.

Specifically, Tavares will be focusing on the following:

  • Chlorophyll, which gives an estimate of how much photosynthesis is taking place in that water at that moment in time.
  • Lowcytometry, which tells how many cells of this certain size classes of phytoplankton and cyanobacteria are in the water.
  • Phytoplankton, which are the different types of phytoplankton that are present in the water.
  • PAH (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), which a UCI team working with Professor Christopher Olivares will measure using a gas chromatography mass spectrometry technique.

Brock will be focusing on bacteria. She laughed while collecting water samples at the Newport Beach Pier.

“I don’t want to imagine a world where there’s no bacteria in the ocean.”

Brock added that no bacteria in the ocean “would result in a lack of bio diversity in the ocean as a whole.”

Brock says bacteria play a lot of important roles in the ocean.

"Some bacteria act as a clean-up crew," she said. "And when an oil spill happens, they can take parts of the oil, break it down, use it as energy.”

Brock and the rest of the team will focus on the following:

  • Sequencing of bacterial DNA, which shows who is there and what they are doing.
  • Nitrate and Phosphate — Phytoplankton are similar to plants in that they need three main things to grow: sunlight, water and nutrients. In the ocean, sunlight and water are plentiful, but nutrients can be harder to come by. The team is measuring nutrients (nitrate and phosphate) to understand if phytoplankton growth was limited by nutrient availability or by toxins from crude oil.
  • Particulate Organic Matter, which shows the chemical composition of the phytoplankton. It is measured as POC (Particulate Organic Carbon), PON (Particulate Organic Nitrogen) and POP (Particulate Organic Phosphorus). Understanding the chemical composition of phytoplankton helps us to understand how nutrients are moving through the food web.
  • PCOD (Particulate Chemical Oxygen Demand), which shows how much oxygen phytoplankton are using to grow. This helps the team understand the relationship between phytoplankton, oxygen levels and the oil spill.

Tavares said that while the ocean at local beaches such as near the Newport Beach pier looks “clean” now, "a lot of times, what the eyes see is not necessarily the full picture."

The team is attempting to get the full picture, or at least, a more detailed picture.

"There have been several large oil spills throughout the history of California," said Brock. "But nobody knows how those oil spills have affected the marine microorganisms."

Surfer Joaquin Romero was in the ocean enjoying some waves on one of the days Tavares and Brock were out collecting samples.

Romero says when the oil spill happened in October, he "was pretty bummed out," adding that he’s happy the scientists are continuing to study the potential effects of the spill.

"I’d be excited to see the results," he said.

It will be a few months of analyzing before any results will be seen. The scientists say the results will first be published in a peer reviewed journal. The results could be available to the public by next summer.

Tavares says that while some parts of science can be time-consuming, such as rinsing her red bucket and all materials used to collect the samples three times before any samples can be collected (to avoid an potential contamination), she says she loves what she does. She says science is "this constant quest to comprehend how we humans may be effecting these cycles."

You can learn more about the project here.