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Natural (Background) Hydrocarbon Contamination in Gulf of Alaska Sediments

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oblique aerial photograph of beach near Katalla, Alaska
Figure 2. Beach near Katalla, Alaska; dark strand lines (indicated by arrows) contain particulate coal.
As a continuation of work begun in 1989 by Paul Carlson (CMG, Emeritus), Keith Kvenvolden (CMG), and others, new research has recently been undertaken to understand the sources and fate of hydrocarbons in Prince William Sound, Alaska (Fig. 1). Whereas the earlier work of Carlson, Kvenvolden, and others focused primarily on the effects of anthropogenic pollution (such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill), this new study addresses the natural, or background, influx of hydrocarbons to the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound. Understanding the source and magnitude of these natural occurrences is necessary to provide a "baseline" against which the impact of human activities on the ecosystem can be measured. Specifically, the new research is directed toward understanding the role of particulate coal in the transport of hydrocarbons (including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, which are known carcinogens). Large coal deposits exist in southeastern Alaska, and the Bering and Malaspina Glaciers (Fig. 1, below) likely erode particulate coal from coal-bearing formations. Coal particles have recently been observed in strand lines on a Gulf of Alaska beach at Katalla (near the Bering Glacier, Fig. 2).

Objectives of this study are to identify sources of particulate coal found in Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound sediments and to evaluate the effects of such influx on sediment hydrocarbon levels. This research is funded by the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council and is a collaborative effort between the USGS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). During Spring 2000, Jon Kolak (CMG) and Jeff Short (NOAA) participated in a one-week cruise to collect benthic sediments from the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound. In Fall 2000, samples of suspended and riparian sediments were collected from streams located between the Bering and Malaspina Glaciers. Samples from both trips are being analyzed at USGS and NOAA laboratories.

map of Gulf of Alaska/Prince William Sound study area
Figure 1. Map of study area.

At the USGS, a heavy-liquid separation technique was developed to isolate coal particles from bulk sediments. Using this technique, coal has been isolated from the benthic sediment samples, implying that (1) longshore transport may be an important mechanism in dispersing particulate coal, and (2) particulate coal contributes to the background hydrocarbon influx observed in Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound sediments.

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