UCSD works to head off possible local and regional impacts from oil spill off Orange County

The Scripps Pier in La Jolla
Seawater for several Scripps Oceanography facilities is filtered directly from the ocean through an intake system at the end of the Scripps Pier in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Measures at La Jolla’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium aim to protect marine life while oceanographers assist in wind and currents forecasts.


UC San Diego has been working to safeguard operations at the La Jolla campus and help federal and state agencies in the event that leaked oil from a broken pipeline off the coast of Orange County moves into local waters.

Safety officials and oceanographers are aiming to protect facilities at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium that require supplies of clean seawater. In addition, ocean monitoring networks based at Scripps Oceanography are providing nearly real-time updates on wind and ocean currents to officials handling the oil spill response.

UCSD also is conducting daily drone surveys, and to date, no sheens of oil have been observed in the waters off La Jolla.

Seawater for several Scripps Oceanography facilities is filtered directly from the Pacific Ocean through an intake system at the end of the Scripps Pier. The intake system also supplies seawater to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and a public seawater tap for private and commercial aquariums.

The system, which draws about 600,000 gallons of seawater each day, is considered crucial for a marine institution. Environmental afflictions like oil spills can threaten research and marine organisms in the aquariums, requiring measures for protection.

“All the marine plants and animals in Birch Aquarium’s habitats depend on natural seawater drawn from the end of the Scripps Pier,” said Harry Helling, executive director of Birch Aquarium. “Faculty and staff from around the university, along with Birch’s own staff, have done an extraordinary job in preparing an oil spill response that will protect the marine life in our care.”

To prepare for the potential introduction of oil into the seawater supplies, UCSD’s environment, health and safety office and facilities management established mitigation measures at multiple points in the pier’s seawater intake network. This includes a temporary filter system adjacent to the pier’s pump house to trap any infiltrating oil.

A temporary filter system in the Scripps Pier’s seawater intake network is designed to trap any infiltrating oil.
(Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

“We take the integrity of our research facilities and our public-facing aquarium very seriously, and this oil spill is a threat to that commitment,” said Patrick Callaghan, assistant vice chancellor of finance and operations at Scripps Oceanography. “Our research community relies upon constant access to seawater to expand our collective knowledge, and Birch Aquarium requires access to seawater to help educate the public about marine life and ecosystems. We appreciate the proactive responses taken by UC San Diego’s EH&S and facilities management teams to help protect this commitment to our research and educational communities.”

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If oil is observed in the ocean near Scripps Oceanography, the incoming seawater will be pumped directly into the pre-filter and final filter unit to remove oil particles and prevent contamination of the overall system.

After the seawater has passed through the filter system, it will be routed to the main system that processes 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 has installed activated carbon in filter bags along the seawater flume, the channel that transports water the length of the pier. The seawater will pass through this treatment train of activated carbon to remove any non-filterable organics that may infiltrate the system. Before moving to Scripps Oceanography research labs and Birch Aquarium, the seawater also will pass through a sand filter system at the base of the pier.

The oil spill was first reported off the coast of Huntington Beach on Oct. 2, triggering a response from state and federal agencies. Beaches in northern Orange County were closed as oil washed ashore, bringing with it oiled seabirds as it threatened coastal habitats.

“We only see what washes up on the beaches or floats on the surface, so a lot of damage could be done in deep-water areas that we can’t see,” said Lisa Levin, a biological oceanographer at Scripps who studies deep ocean and wetland ecosystems. “Oil makes its way into the ecosystem in many different ways. It can be taken up by pelagic fish, fall onto the seafloor or drift into salt marshes, adding stress to all those ecosystems.”

Scripps oceanographers and data analysts have been working around the clock with 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 surface currents, wave and swell forecasts and wind conditions.

Wave Glider
Wave Gliders similar to this one have been dispatched to help with wind forecasts at the oil spill location off Orange County and to sample ocean water for oil.
(Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

On Oct. 8, a team of Scripps researchers led by oceanographer Sophia Merrifield sent a Liquid Robotics Wave Glider equipped with environmental sensors to the offshore location of the oil spill to provide wind measurements to feed into forecast models being used by the Coast Guard and others for cleanup efforts.

A second Wave Glider was deployed to sample ocean water for oil. The robot will continue to survey Southern California waters for the next several weeks.

In addition to the Wave Gliders, surface current data obtained from high-frequency radar networks provide hourly maps of ocean surface currents in near real time.

Water samples are being collected from the end of the Scripps Pier to be analyzed for diesel range organics, which are signature components of crude oil. The samples are being analyzed by a commercial lab, though Neal Arakawa of UCSD’s Environmental and Complex Analysis Laboratory and Scripps chemical oceanographer Lihini Aluwihare are setting up an in-house lab to analyze water samples for petroleum hydrocarbons.

In addition, the San Diego County Emergency Operations Center has included three water quality sampling locations at Scripps Oceanography. As of Oct. 13, no petroleum chemicals had been detected in water samples.

For more information about the oil spill response, visit, which is managed by the Coast Guard, the agency coordinating the response.

If members of the public encounter any tarballs on local beaches, experts advise not handling them or any oil but rather recommend emailing cleanup teams via