Tarballs are common along the southern California coastline. This study investigates tarballs from beaches along this coastline, with a focus on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miquel Islands in the Santa Barbara Channel. The tarballs were fingerprinted using biomarker and stable carbon isotope parameters, and then grouped according to genetic similarities. The data show that the tarballs are of natural and not anthropogenic origin and that all originate from source rock within the Miocene Monterey Formation via shallow seeps offshore. Sterane biomarker parameters were found to vary widely in the sample set. Biodegradation, especially of the regular steranes, is the primary process impacting the biomarker distributions in a large group of samples. The most common tarball occurrences appear to come from offshore seepage near the west end of Santa Cruz Island. Another major group most likely was transported north from near Santa Monica Bay. Several individual occurrences of some of these tarball groups also were found on beaches as far north as Pt. Reyes and as far south as San Diego, indicating significant long-distance dispersal by ocean currents. This study begins a library of tarball fingerprints to be used as a database to help distinguish between natural and anthropogenic tar occurrences all along the California coast, and to compare shallow seepage with future samples of deeper production oils from the same area.
Additional publication details
Geochemical characterization of tarballs on beaches along the California coast. Part I - Shallow seepage impacting the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel