UCSD Works to Protect Against Recent Oil Spill

UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been working to protect against potential harm from the recent Southern California oil spill. On Oct. 2, a pipeline off the coast of Orange County broke, causing an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil to leak into the Catalina Channel. 

The spillage has had a detrimental effect on the local environment as fish, birds, and other marine animals have washed up on the beaches — many either dead or coated in oil. Due to the potential health risks posed by the oil-contaminated waters, all Orange County beaches were closed on Oct. 3.

Eric Terrill, an oceanographer at SIO and the director of the Marine Physical Laboratory, told The UCSD Guardian about the tools Scripps has been using in response to the oil spill.

“[Scripps Institute of Oceanography has] played a role in forecasting oil transport,” Terrill explained. “Some of this forecasting leveraged capabilities that we had installed along the coast of Southern California close to 20 years ago, using a network of radar systems.” 

Clarisa Anderson, the executive director of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System at SIO, spoke to The Guardian elaborating on this radar system managed by the SCCOOS. 

“High frequency radar is a tool used to measure surface currents and their velocity and direction,” Anderson explained. “This proves very useful in an oil spill response because it tells where the water is moving in real time.”

The forecasting information gathered by Scripps’ technology provides valuable information to the United States Coast Guard, who oversees the immediate response to an oil spill. Oil transport forecasting aids the United States Coast Guard in determining shoreline closures. 

Additionally, the Coast Guard lays down floating barriers, called “booms,” in order to contain the spill so that oil may be wicked up, preventing it from reaching sensitive areas such as wetlands.

UCSD officials raised concerns that operations at Scripps Institution of Oceanography would be negatively impacted if the oil drifted far enough south to reach San Diego. 

To protect seawater supplies from contamination, UCSD’s Environmental Health and Safety department has implemented a multi-step filtering system designed to trap pollutants and sample for hydrocarbons in the water.

“UCSD has been proactive about protecting the seawater intake at the end of Scripps Pier because it feeds the aquarium, as well as a number of scientific studies here,” Terrill said. 

If oil permeated the area surrounding Scripps Pier, scientific operations and any animals under the care of Birch Aquarium would be placed at risk. Terrill added that EHS has fortunately not yet encountered oil spillage on the beaches of San Diego, as of Oct. 30.

“The Environmental Health and Safety office sampled for hydrocarbons in the water but we have not seen any oil, aside from tar balls on the beach,” Terrill said.

Besides the forecasting system, Terrill talked about the repositioning of the SIO’s offshore robotic platform to gain knowledge of wind conditions, a crucial component in predicting the direction of oil transport.

“Another tool we have is a robotic platform which uses wave energy to propel itself,” Terrill said. “This platform had been offshore already for several months doing research and, when the spill occurred, we then repositioned it to the areas of highest oil concentration so that we could understand what the winds were doing because the prediction of oil transport is very dependent on the wind speed and direction.”

Encouraging people to see the broader context of the oil spill, Anderson said there are  environmental ramifications of where energy is sourced.

“It is important to see the consequences of being reliant on fossil fuels,” Anderson said. “Oil is a sensitive resource and when there is a leak, the collateral damage is high, which is why it’s good for people to understand the costs and benefits of the way that we get energy.” 

“Scripps has a lot of interesting ocean observing technologies that other groups don’t necessarily have at the ready,” Anderson continued. “It is pretty cool that we are able to assist in a situation like this and use new cutting edge tools to help with the oil spill.” 

UCSD continues to monitor the water surrounding Scripps to ensure the protection of campus operations. The situation will continue to be monitored by The UCSD Guardian.

Photo taken by Hope Hoffman-Larson for The UCSD Guardian

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