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Mitigation actions underway at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium to protect marine organisms as oceanographers assist with wind and current forecasts

The University of California, San Diego is protecting critical campus operations and assisting federal and state agencies in the event oil leaking from a broken pipeline off the coast of Orange County moves south.

Safety officials and oceanographers are working to mitigate impacts on facilities at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and its public exploration center Birch Aquarium that require a supply of clean seawater. Scripps-based ocean monitoring networks also provide near real-time updates on ocean winds and currents to oil spill response officials.

Seawater from several Scripps facilities is filtered directly from the Pacific Ocean through an intake system at the end of the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier. This intake system also supplies seawater to NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and a public seawater faucet for private and commercial aquariums. The system, which draws approximately 600,000 gallons of seawater each day, is an essential resource for a marine institution. Environmental concerns such as oil spills and harmful red tides threaten research and marine organisms in these aquariums, requiring advanced protective measures.

To prepare for the introduction of oil into these seawater supplies, UC San Diego’s Office of the Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) and Facility Management have established measures to ‘attenuation at several points of the jetty’s seawater intake network. This includes a temporary filter system adjacent to the jetty pumping station to trap any oil seepage.

“We take the integrity of our research facilities and our public aquarium very seriously, and this oil spill is a threat to this engagement,” said Patrick Callaghan, assistant vice chancellor of finance and operations at Scripps. “Our research community relies on constant access to seawater to expand our collective knowledge, and Birch Aquarium needs access to seawater to help educate the public about marine life. and ecosystems. our research and education communities.

UC San Diego also conducts daily drone surveys. To date, no oil reflections have been observed near the Scripps water intake or in the waters off La Jolla. If oil is observed in the ocean near Scripps, the incoming seawater will be pumped directly into the pre-filter and final filter unit to remove oil particles and prevent contamination of the entire system.

Once the seawater has passed through this filtration system, it will be routed to the main system which treats the incoming seawater. This system currently has a 60 micron screen that can be modified to trap pollutants as small as 40 microns if needed.

As a third treatment, the university’s facilities management team installed activated carbon in filter bags along the seawater channel – the channel that carries water along the jetty. The seawater will pass through this activated carbon treatment line to remove any non-filterable organic matter that could infiltrate the system. Before moving on to Scripps Research Labs and the Birch Aquarium, seawater will also pass through a sand filter system located at the base of the pier.

“All the marine plants and animals in Birch Aquarium habitats depend on the natural seawater drawn from the end of Scripps Pier,” said Harry Helling, Executive Director of Birch Aquarium. “Faculty and staff across the university, as well as Birch’s own staff, have done an amazing job preparing for an oil spill response that will protect the marine life in our care.

The oil spill was first reported off Huntington Beach on October 3, triggering a response from state and federal agencies. Beaches in northern Orange County have closed due to oil that washed up on the shore, bringing with them oiled seabirds that threatened coastal habitats.

“We only see what is washing up on beaches or floating on the surface, so a lot of damage could be done in areas of deep water that we can’t see,” said Lisa Levin, biological oceanographer at Scripps who studies deep oceans and wetland ecosystems. “Oil enters the ecosystem in different ways. It can be taken up by pelagic fish, drop to the seabed, or drift in salt marshes, adding stress to all of these ecosystems. “

Scripps oceanographers and data analysts worked tirelessly with these agencies, including California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, to monitor ocean conditions around the spill, particularly ocean currents of surface, wave and swell forecasts, and wind conditions.

On October 8, a team of Scripps researchers led by oceanographer Sophia Merrifield hijacked a wave glider equipped with environmental sensors to the current location of the oil spill. Boeing-Liquid Robotics’ wave glider had previously sampled along a CalCOFI transect and is now providing wind measurements at the plume location. This data feeds into forecast models used by the US Coast Guard and others for cleanup efforts. A second Waveglider was recently deployed which included a hydrocarbon fluorometer to sample the absence / presence of oil in the water column. The robot will continue to monitor southern California waters as far north as Laguna Beach and off Catalina over the next few weeks.

In July 2020, NOAA’s Office of Maritime and Air Operations and Scripps signed a 10-year agreement to improve the way unmanned systems – such as wave gliders – are used to collect important ocean observations and increase the operational capabilities of NOAA.

In addition to wave gliders, surface current data obtained from high-frequency radar networks provide hourly maps of ocean surface currents in near real time. The Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS) operates a network of these stations, providing information to agencies overseeing response efforts.

“Ocean currents in southern California are notoriously difficult to predict due to the presence of islands and complex coastal topography,” said Eric Terrill who led the installation of this radar array nearly 20 years old and is now Director of Scripps Marine Physical Laboratory. . “This complexity emphasizes the need for real-time observations to inform oil spill response strategies. ”

There have been reports of oil tar balls washed up on the shore, including on beaches near the Scripps campus in La Jolla. A shoreline clean-up and assessment (SCAT) team managed by Unified Spill Command monitors local shorelines. Researchers are testing the chemical makeup of these tarballs to determine whether they originate from the spill or among coastal deposits occasionally produced by offshore seeps.

Water samples are taken from the end of Scripps Pier to be analyzed for organic compounds of the diesel range, which are characteristic components of crude oil. Currently, the samples are being analyzed by a commercial laboratory, however, Neal Arakawa of the Environmental and Complex Analysis Laboratory at UC San Diego and the chemical oceanographer Scripps Oceanography Lihini Aluwihare are setting up an in-house laboratory to analyze the samples from water in search of petroleum hydrocarbons. In addition, the San Diego County Emergency Operations Center included three sampling sites in Scripps for water quality monitoring. As of October 13, no petroleum chemicals had been detected in the water samples.

More information on oil spill response is available at, which is managed by the US Coast Guard, the lead agency coordinating the response. In addition, if members of the public encounter tarballs on the beaches, for safety reasons, it is not recommended to handle tar or oil balls, but to contact the clean-up crews via [email protected] to inform them of the locations.

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