Chris Reddy is a senior scientist and the director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He has been intensely involved in research on the Gulf oil spill, making several trips to the region and spending time at Central Command as a science liaison.
The following editorial is reproduced in full with permission from the Providence Journal.
One year ago today, a blowout at the Macondo well, in the Gulf of Mexico, resulted in 11 fatalities aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the release of an estimated 170 million gallons of oil over three months.
As an oil-spill scientist, I quickly found myself in the middle of the disaster, doing research, testifying in Congress and providing dozens of media interviews. What I learned was that the most heavily affected species of the spill were the people of the Gulf, who lived through the economic hardships and continuing uncertainties of the health and future of that body of water tied so closely to
Today should be a day of mourning and reflection for the loss of life and livelihoods and for the difficulties that, for many people, have no clear ending.
I also learned how little most people know about how science works. During the past several weeks, I have received requests from the news media to comment on the first anniversary and the effect of the spill. I have dutifully responded that much research remains and that it would be imprudent to make any predictions about the long-term impacts of the spill.
Much more data are needed.
I did not hear it in specific words but I could sense the frustration of many of the journalists with whom I spoke. They probably hoped for a much-awaited update that would begin to address all the unanswered questions about dead dolphins, fish populations and the danger posed by oil plumes. They wanted a story and I gave them one they didn’t want: Science takes time. And today will be like any other day in my laboratory or in science in general. Scientifically, this anniversary is, for us, quite arbitrary.
Science is still largely blind about the spill’s impact to this date. And we may never have all the data that people in the news media and so many others want. Some want an accounting for every gallon of oil spilled, which reminds me of my brother-in-law the banker, who wants to track every penny in his checking account each month. The Gulf, however, is a huge water body and, despite the efforts of so many, science may never completely “close the books” on the exact fate of the hydrocarbon assets.
The same is true of the biological impacts of all that oil. What will we say if there is a decline in the population of a certain species of fish this year or five years from now? Science cannot and will not directly blame the spill with 100 percent certainty because many factors are at work in a place as complex as the Gulf, ranging from runoff from the Mississippi River, hypoxic “dead zones” and the lingering effects of hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Rita. In addition to these, there are natural variabilities that appear in the Gulf’s systems.
Consider how you might explain one bad year of growing tomatoes following several good years when there is no obvious bad guy like a drought or tomato blight. We face the same problem, but on a much greater scale and with much more at stake.
Science is like walking into a cave with flashlight. You shine it over here, and you can see what the cave looks like where the light lands. But the cave is enormous and your beam of light is narrow and can only penetrate the darkness so far. But every scientific finding builds on other findings and lets you over time build up an understanding of the cave.
What science can provide is invaluable information for the future study of oil spills, to petroleum engineering and to those who still live with the reality of this spill every day. Ideally, our data will be used to arrive at a fair settlement for all parties involved and lead to changes in technology and practices that may help avert another disaster. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to be asked questions about the long-term fate of the Gulf – the answers to some of which might not be known for years, if ever. But we scientists will keep working on the data.