Besides soft sand squishing between the toes of our beach goers we occasionally see tar stuck to the heels and toes of our walkers and joggers. And many wetsuits of our surfers have been ruined by the stuff globbing on. Where does all this tar come from?
The ocean floor has natural oil and gas seeps, with the most prolific being beneath the Santa Barbara Channel. When the oil seeps it rises to the surface and floats, coagulates, and biodegrades into tar. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls this process “weathering” which changes the liquid oil into tar.
For those needing more information, California Department and Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response describes the process like this; oil seeps from the ocean floor and rises to the surface of the ocean waters and creates an oil sheen. Lighter components of the oil evaporate or dissolve, leaving behind heavier types of oil, like crude. This crude then mixes with saltwater to create the sticky tar.
When you do step into the gooey stuff, fear not, you are not alone. Currents disperse the globs of oil all over our coastline from above San Francisco to well into Mexico, with Santa Barbara seeing the greatest amount, hence such beach locations being named historically named “Tar Pits” and “Coal Oil Point” in that county.
The US Geological Society has spent approximately 15 years “fingerprinting” tar and oil from natural offshore seeps and their studies reveal virtually all the tar balls which wash up along our coast come from natural seeps and not from vessel discharge or accident; however, when accidents do occur we typically see an increase of tar along our coastline.
If you find yourself stuck with the icky mess of cleaning off tar from your body wash the skin with soap and water, and utilize baby oil or other safe household cleaning compounds which remove oil and grease. Sunscreen can also work in a pinch.
And if you see an unusual number of tar balls on the beach, contact the Lifeguards or call the U.S. Coast Guard at (800) 424-8802. If you find wildlife covered in oil call the Oil Wildlife Care Network at (877) 823-6926.