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SEA Currents: News

July 22, 2016

WHOI Studies Tar Samples Collected by SEA Semester Students

Doug Karlson,

SEA Semester

Above: WHOI guest student Hilary Green archives tarball samples at Sea Education Association's Woods Hole campus. Below: Green and WHOI research specialist Robert Nelson examine gas chromatograms of the tarballs. (Photo by Chris Reddy)

Researchers have struck oil at SEA’s Woods Hole campus; well, not exactly oil, but tar.

Thousands of samples of floating tarballs have been collected in surface tows on SEA Semester cruises over a period of more than 30 years and have been carefully stored away in small glass jars, unstudied.  Until now.

Hilary Green, a chemistry major at UNC Chapel Hill and guest student at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), spent several weeks on campus earlier this summer working with Sarah Fuller, SEA Science Program Coordinator, to examine and archive the collection.

Green is working with Chris Reddy, a WHOI senior scientist who studies marine chemistry and geochemistry, and an expert on oil spills, to better understand oil pollution in the ocean.

Now that the archiving is complete, the samples have been brought to WHOI where Green has already analyzed 100 of them. Her goal is to identify the type of oil, how long it was in the water, and, possibly, where it came from. Possible sources include oil spills,  natural seeps, and shipping.  The WHOI researchers also hope to detect historical patterns that may shed light on the effect of regulations on ocean pollution.  

WHOI guest student Hilary Green and research specialist Robert Nelson examining gas chromatograms of the tarballs. <em>Photo by Chris Reddy</em>After weeks spent in the SEA archives examining the samples, her first observation was the importance of properly cataloguing and labeling samples.  

“We really don’t know what we’re going to find. It’s kind of a mystery,” Green explained one day when she was working at SEA.  She also called SEA’s tarball collection “a treasure chest of samples … it’s amazing.”    

And the mystery continues after the laboratory analyses, says Reddy.  “I am hesitant to expand on our initial findings, but I am amazed at the variability in the chemical composition of the tarballs.”

Paul Joyce, SEA Dean, and Audrey Meyer, SEA Professor of Oceanography, helped facilitate this scientific collaboration between SEA and WHOI.  In 1998, Joyce published a study on the areal distribution of 15 years of SEA’s tarball samples from the Western North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, and the current research builds very significantly upon that work. 

Said Joyce: “We’re so excited that our samples could be used to advance the understanding of oil pollution, and we look forward to learning more as the WHOI research progresses.”

Categories: News, • Topics: research  pollution  oil_spills • (0) Comments
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