Oil spills and spill response chemicals in the Alaska marine environment


As the risk of oil spills increases in Alaskan waters, there is a growing need to understand the biodegradation of petroleum as well as the fate and effects of oil spill response products. We are conducting laboratory incubation studies using Arctic (Chukchi Sea) and sub-Arctic (Prince William Sound) seawater as well as the Arctic benthos to assess oil degradation rates and to identify microbial taxa important to biodegradation. We are also investigating two spill response products on the National Contingency Plan (NCP) Schedule that are eligible for use in Alaskan waters and elsewhere: the chemical dispersant Corexit 9500A and Oil Spill Eater II (OSEII), a product marketed as an enzymatic biodegradation agent. Our goals include assessing the degradation of the major surfactant components of Corexit 9500A (with collaborator Jennifer Field of Oregon State University) and characterizing the composition and effectiveness of the lesser-known product OSEII. Because spilled oil can also become entrained in sediments, we are investigating the biodegradation of oil under aerobic and anaerobic conditions in Arctic sediment mesocosms as well. Using molecular microbial community analyses (e.g. 16S rRNA gene sequencing, metagenomics, and metatranscriptomics), we are characterizing shifts in community structure following exposure to oil and/or dispersants to identify taxa important to the biodegradation of petroleum and spill response products in the Alaskan marine environment. Through these studies, we aim to provide fundamental insight into Alaskan marine microbial ecology and to provide timely information to regulators, the oil spill response community, industry, and other stakeholders regarding the fate and effects of oil and spill response products in preparation for future oil spills.

These projects are funded by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute (Cordova, AK),   Alaska INBRE, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Coastal Marine Institute and previously by private industry (Shell, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Alaska Clean Seas) and a Fulbright Award to Thailand.


Current research on oil spill response chemicals is in collaboration with Co-PI Dr. Ursel Schuette, Research Scientist, Institute of Arctic Biology, UAF.


Former Ph.D student Kelly McFarlin


Ph.D. student Taylor Gofstein

PI Leigh with UIC Science Boat Captain Vernon Brower, Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), AK