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Sea Grant Researchers Address ‘What Ifs' of Oil Pollution


Katie Mosher, NC Sea Grant, 919/515-9069,
Lawrence B. Cahoon, UNCW, 910/962-3706,

Posted Wednesday, June 23, 2010. UPDATED with photo package at 19:00.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington are taking a proactive approach to determining the North Carolina "what ifs" of the massive oil plumes threatening the environment and communities in the Gulf of Mexico region.

The scientists are expanding ongoing North Carolina Sea Grant-funded studies of ecosystems and habitats of the beach and surf zones along Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach in New Hanover County. These additional samplings and analyses of ocean water, sediment, shellfish and fish will follow federally designed protocols to detect oil pollution, thus providing baseline scientific data of what an ecologically healthy beach looks like, according to Lawrence B. Cahoon, UNCW professor of marine biology and principal investigator of the multi-disciplinary research team.

Cahoon stresses that there is only a small risk that any Gulf-spill oil would reach North Carolina's coast. But if so, the researchers will be better prepared to scientifically determine the "before and after" effects of oil residues and other impacts that may make it to nearshore waters and shorelines.

The expanded sampling and analysis builds on the UNCW researchers' two-year biological studies of how beaches are impacted and how they recover from beach nourishment or other human activities. The new protocols were added to the scheduled post-nourishment analysis of the New Hanover beaches.

Michael Voiland, North Carolina Sea Grant's executive director, is pleased that his program can make such research investment decisions to help the state deal with potential oil spill arrival and resulting impacts.

"Being co-funded with state and federal resources, understanding university research procedures, and working hard to discern emerging coastal research needs in the state, Sea Grant can be facile, flexible and timely with regard to the research information it seeks. We can use project extensions and other means to help focus or amplify university faculty research efforts," Voiland notes.

North Carolina Sea Grant also hopes to be able to support a new dimension of the project, which could allow the team to expand its baseline studies to other sites from Cape Fear to Cape Hatteras.

The UNCW research team includes:

  • Cahoon, a biological oceanographer, focusing on phytoplankton and sediment microbe dynamics;
  • Thomas Lankford, associate professor of marine biology and ichthyologist, focusing on fish population abundance and health in the surf zone;
  • Lynn Leonard, professor and department chair of geography and geology, focusing on sediments and beach topographic profiles;
  • Martin Posey, professor and department chair of biology and marine biology, focusing on marine bottom animal communities and food web structure; and
  • Troy Alphin, research associate in the benthic ecology laboratory, focusing on collection and lab analysis of marine bottom communities.

The team also includes undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students who receive field experiences.

In addition to the UNCW surf zone study, current and previous research projects funded by Sea Grant likely will provide baseline data that can be reviewed if oil or other effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are noted in waters off our coast.


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Lawrence Cahoon of UNCW talks about sediment sampling at Wrightsville Beach on Tuesday, June 22, 2010. Cahoon is the lead investigator funded by North Carolina Sea Grant to collect beach health data ahead of potential impacts from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Photo credit: Jamie Moncrief/UNCW. (CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE) Victoria Huff, a teacher at South Brunswick High School and UNCW alumna, takes sediment samples at Wrightsville Beach as part of the $72,000 North Carolina Sea Grant project studying the impacts of beach nourishment. Photo credit: Jamie Moncrief/UNCW. (CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE) UNCW students Kelly Stull, Meg Young, Chad McPeters and UNCW postdoctoral researcher Amanda Kahn examine sediment samples from Wrightsville Beach. Photo credit: Jamie Moncrief/UNCW. (CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE)

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