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Mixing Oil and Ecosystems

11/10/2010 Museum
Chris Reddy, Marine Chemist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Description: "An oil spill is a crime scene," says Christopher Reddy, but quite unlike the kind in TV whodunits, where fictional forensic whizzes help nail down perpetrators with an arsenal of lab tools. For Reddy, a chemist involved in analyzing oil spills, investigations take years, and do not always yield certain results.

Reddy delivers a colorful account of his research, which includes an insider's perspective on the Deepwater Horizon spill. He confesses that not long ago he "was thinking about getting out of the oil spill business;" the incidence of big accidents "had dropped like a rock" since 1991. Then came news of the BP well blowout. He was invited on the scene to take water samples in the spring of 2010. Reddy shows video from underwater robots collecting oil from the leaking well head, and of the fierce flames from gas burning off nearby. "You couldn't hear anything, and you could feel the heat on your skin. I'll never forget it," Reddy recalls.

Reddy has long experience with tracking oil in the ocean and in the diverse coastal ecosystems where it comes ashore. He has learned that even 30 years after a spill, coastal marshes and shores that appear healthy often conceal toxic sludge that wreaks havoc on flora and fauna. Contrary to oil industry claims, sites don't rebound easily.

Accounting for the Deepwater Horizon crude (nearly 200 million gallons) and its impact on the ocean and coastal environments has meant taking countless samples, and tagging them chemically. Oil is made of thousands of compounds, "each with a different personality, or behavior, like a teenager," says Reddy, and nature treats these diverse oils in different ways: "Some evaporate, some biodegrade, or break down with sunlight." Reddy says, "I want to know who's (in deep water now), who used to be, and why the other guy is on the surface." This means "punching holes in the water collecting as many data points as possible."

The result of this work, involving hundreds of surveys by Reddy and other scientists, has costly legal ramifications for BP and the government, not to mention significant consequences for ecosystems and people living along the Gulf. And the outcome of this research will unfold not over months, but likely over decades, with lingering uncertainties about the ultimate disposition of the oil. "If we can say about 50% evaporated, about 1/3rd biodegraded and we don't know where the rest went," says Reddy, "that might be the best we can get."

About the Speaker(s): Christopher Reddy studies pollution, especially oil spills, in the marine environment. He often employs novel analytical techniques to solve difficult, "real world" problems. His overall goal is to provide society with the most pertinent and concrete information necessary for addressing the health of the environment.

Reddy and his research group have studied the fate of the Florida oil spill, which occurred in September 1969 off Cape Cod, Massachusetts where petroleum residues continue to persist in salt marshes. His work has shown that in some locations the amount and composition of the oil has not changed for more than two decades. Reddy also studies the chemistry of oil that seeps out naturally from the ocean floor off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. He has also researched the sources and fate of molecules emitted from the combustion of gasoline, oil, biodiesel, coal, and wood.

More recently, Reddy has become concerned about the impacts of carbon nanotubes (tiny cylindrical carbon molecules used in electronics and a variety of other industrial applications) on the environment and the potential releases of chemicals during the industrialization of emerging nations.

Reddy has written over 20 editorials on science"based issues for the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, and Science magazine, among others. He has provided expert testimonies on oil spills for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, US Coast Guard, and US Congress and advised members of both the US House of Representatives and Senate on alternative"fuels and nanoparticles.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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