Environmental Importance of Oil Spills

By Sam McNeely

I am a Research Experience for Undergraduates student at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences during the summer of 2020. This summer, I am working with Drs. David Fields and Christoph Aeppli. The project I am performing is analyzing how copepods respond vertically in the water column to crude oil and dispersants.

For now, forget the complexity of that last sentence. I want to explain the environmental importance of oil spills, specifically in the Arctic. Picture the Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Remember how devastating that was and still is? What immediately comes to my mind is the commercials of seabirds, sea turtles, and dolphins covered in thick, greasy oil stuck and dying, or dead, on the beach or at the surface of the water. I know, I do not like thinking about it either, but just wait, this gives you a picture of a fraction of what is to come.

Sea ice in the Arctic is melting because of climate change, which is caused by our excessive use of fossil fuels at such an astounding rate. Because of this, access to more regions of the Arctic will be easily accessible in the years to come. Transportation across the Arctic Ocean has and will continue to increase as well as the exploitation of the large oil reserves that are stored beneath the Arctic Ocean. Alright, now think about those sad commercials after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There is over 20 thousand times more oil in the Arctic than was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. I cannot even imagine the catastrophic environmental impacts that would create if spilled into the Arctic, and that is not even including oil spilled from transportation!

Based on past experiments, smaller animals have been shown to be affected by oil spills even more than the larger animals like birds, sea turtles, and dolphins. These small organisms are copepods, a very important organism essential to marine ecosystems as the base of the food web. After being exposed to oil and dispersants (the chemical product that breaks up the oil at the water’s surface and sinks it into the ocean), copepods experienced lower rates of reproduction, digestion difficulty, ingestion of the oil and dispersants, and even death. If copepods suffer from oil poisoning, that will cause drastic effects on the rest of the ecosystem that relies on them for food or their predators for food, potentially bringing species near or even to extinction.

We are testing an Arctic copepod’s response to oil in a 2-meter-tall tank. This copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, makes daily vertical migrations between the surface, to feed at night, and to 100 meters deep, to avoid predators during the day. This species may be able to detect oil in the water and avoid it by way of its diving behavior. This experiment’s results will give greater insight as to how oil spills affect these Arctic organisms and when to apply dispersants.

Sam McNeely is a University of North Carolina Wilmington student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on state-of-the-art methods and technologies.

Environmental Importance of Oil Spills