A UCSB graduate student is among a group of scientists researching a natural oil seep in the Santa Barbara Channel that has been active for millennia.
Chris Farwell, a marine & earth sciences graduate student, is the lead author and one of the primary researchers of a study published last week detailing the life cycle of Santa Barbara’s oil seeps. According to the study, oil has been trickling naturally – for at least 100,000 years – from a massive well beneath the channel, and has resulted in some unique biological and geological adaptations.
Although Farwell studied chemistry as an undergraduate at UCSB, he decided to shift his focus after conducting field research with earth science professor Dave Valentine.
“In the chemistry department, you are usually working directly under a graduate student,” Farewell said. “So if you even got published, you wouldn’t be the first author. But when Dave presented it to me, there was no one directly mentoring me. … I was working directly with him and I pretty much went through and designed the sampling area with a lot of advice from Dave.”
While most people are only aware of the natural oil leak due to the tar caked onto their feet after a day at the beach, in actuality the oil on the beach and close to shore only makes up a very small portion of oil released. Before the publication of this study, little was known about the final destination of the seeping oil, but sediment samples have revealed that the majority of the oil is deposited underwater along the coastline.
According to Farewell, while the factors for this type of oil seepage are rarely occurring in nature, it can be harmful to the surrounding waters, coastlines and marine life.
“With the research, we were able to show that this is a very specialized case,” Farewell said. “But it’s easy to misinterpret our results as saying that [the oil] is not very deleterious to the environment. The area that we are able to study here provides us with an excellent natural laboratory to see how long oil stays suspended in water and how long it takes to settle in the sediment below.”
Additionally, the researchers found that the deposited oil is different from the oil that oozes out underwater, as it is actually eaten by microorganisms in the water.
“It’s clear that there is a ton of degradation [of the oil] from the biology,” Farewell said. “[There’s] a lot of ground to cover in terms of the microbiology of the oil spill and studying what type of microorganisms consume the oil.”
Moreover, Farewell said the constant presence of oil in the water over the last several thousand years has made the waters around the Santa Barbara Channel a unique spot to observe ways in which microorganisms have evolved to thrive in an oily habitat.
Microorganisms capable of consuming certain elements in crude oil – which have been used in the past to reduce the environmental impact of oil spills – can be found off the coast of Santa Barbara, Farewell said, which proves how well the local micro-marine life has adapted to its oily surroundings.
“Bioremediation of an oil spill is using natural microorganisms to clean it up,” Farewell said. “They fertilize the area with nutrients you don’t get with oil, enabling the microorganisms to focus on consuming the carbon in the oil.”