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The Environmental Effects of the Huntington Oil Spill

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Orange County beaches are beginning to reopen after the Amplify Energy Corp. oil spill in Huntington Beach on Oct. 2, with one lasting consequence: the effect on marine ecosystems. 

The Weather Channel recently interviewed two UCI ecology and evolutionary biology professors, Dr. Joleah Lamb and Dr. Matthew Bracken, about the incident.

“[The oil spill] is going to affect a lot of different organisms … and the food that we eat. The domino effect even includes human beings,” Lamb said. 

According to Lamb, even after the spill is cleaned on the surface, a lot of oil will sink to the bottom of the Pacific. 

“Algae are some of the most productive ecosystems on the earth, they produce 70% of our oxygen. They’re tremendously affected by oil slicks,” Lamb said. “They’re gonna make [the beaches] all pretty again, but the trouble will still be there.” 

Lamb confirmed that nature does have the ability to clean itself up from this disaster. 

“Microbes that live in the ocean can degrade these oils naturally,” Lamb said. 

Bracken also noted the importance of the role of microorganisms in marine life, which are responsible for filtering the wastewater that comes from the land. 

“This is a service that nature gives us that’s incredibly valuable,” Bracken said. 

However, this may not be enough in the case of this oil spill. 

“We’re finding that these microbes could be killed, and [that] could be detrimental to the ecosystem as a whole,” Lamb said. 

An event like the recent oil spill creates an environment in which the oil-eating microbes thrive — an effect that could harm marine life in the long run.  

“You will see more of the microbes emerge that … could eat the oil … and [other types of microbes] are not going to be as prevalent,” Bracken said. 

To elaborate on Bracken’s statement, the amount of filtration microbes in the ocean will increase because of the increased oil concentration; however, this means that there will be competition among other microbe types. As the number of filtration microbes grow, the other microbes that carry out different functions will eventually decrease.

This imbalance leads to long-term stress on the marine ecosystem due to too many filtration microbes in the ocean, which makes the other microbe types decrease. Consequently, these other microbes will be unable to perform their vital functions, such as cycling energy and nutrients. 

If the energy and nutrients aren’t properly cycled, then the plankton — the cornerstone of the ocean’s food web — will not be able to fill its ecological niche and support all the other forms of marine life. 

“You just have to remember that every species in here from plankton all the way up to the gray whales … [are] connected to each other,” Bracken said. 

Bracken said that the spill has the potential to be classified as an ecological catastrophe. 

“There are a lot of variables … the shift in the winds that might bring it onshore, how quickly it spreads, but we know that the substances in crude oil … can be incredibly toxic,” Bracken said. 

Even after the spill is cleaned up on the surface, there will be lasting environmental effects for months and years to come. 

For more information on these environmental implications, watch the full interviews with Dr. Bracken and Dr. Lamb

Lauren Le is a STEM Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at laurenl9@uci.edu.