Last November, a half year after the BP oil spill, as Christopher Reddy sat in a Mobile, Ala., restaurant, he overheard a customer at a nearby table ask a friend if he would order fish. “The other customer said, ‘No, thanks, I don’t like my fish with a side order of cancer.’”
Reddy, a marine chemist, pondered telling them that scientific data from the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies indicate that eating fish from the Gulf of Mexico after the April 20, 2010, spill wasn’t dangerous.
“But I had a failure of nerve. I wish I had spoken to them.”
He increasingly sees himself as “a bridge between the public and science,” a span that both the public and policymakers crossed in the wake of the Gulf crisis.
Reddy, 41, a senior scientist at the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on Cape Cod, has been in the midst of research on the spill almost from the start. He was on the team that worked in June 2010 on a research vessel next to the hellish flames from the stricken Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. (While the disaster is mostly called “the BP spill” because that company was assigned overall legal responsibility, other firms were involved, too.) They were there to use ultra-high-tech submersible equipment to collect data from the rig’s broken wellhead, about 5,000 feet deep, from which millions of gallons of crude oil and natural gas eventually spewed.
He says he’ll never forget the “apocalyptic scene” as his team moved onto their research vessel from a larger ship in “the oily, loud, flaming area.”
Then came grueling, but exciting, work.
“We were on a two-week-long cruise with no rainchecks,” he says. “This led many of us to be ‘up’ as much as we could physically handle. There may have been a time when I went two-and-a-half days without sleeping in my bunk. Instead, I’d lay on the deck with my cell phone on my chest. This may sound macho, but it’s not smart to get so little sleep with the chance of being near heavy equipment. So we tried to police each other’s mental and physical condition.”
Their research found that the spill had created a now-famous deepwater plume of hydrocarbons — a plume that had spread dozens of miles southwest from the wellhead.
The plume received hyperbolic coverage from some news media — and from some of the more emotional members of the scientific community, too. But Reddy, who emphasizes the importance of a calm, dispassionate presentation of data, quickly debunked assertions that the plume was, in itself, a catastrophe.
The Sept-Oct 2011
This article appears in our Sept-Oct 2011 issue under the title “Calm in the Eye of the Storm.” To see more articles from this issue, go to the Sept-Oct 2011 magazine page on Miller-McCune.com.[/class]
It was not, he notes, “a 22-mile-long chocolate river of death.” Rather, it consisted of water with a higher concentration of hydrocarbons than the surrounding water. Put a glass of noncontaminated water next to one with water from the plume, he says, and they’d look the same. (Of course, he wouldn’t drink it!)
The chemist, who has also been studying the marshy waters of the northern Gulf Coast where some of the oil had drifted, has become a specialist in explaining science in careful but accessible — even chatty — ways to the public. He particularly emphasizes the very hard and constantly re-evaluated work, patience and intellectual humility needed in collecting and analyzing scientific data, as well as the civic obligation to discuss it carefully, but forthrightly, with the public.
The steady intellectual (if not always physical) calmness of this muscular, very energetic and enthusiastic man contrasted with some high-profile environmental activists and a few environmental scientists who presented apocalyptic scenarios for the BP spill.
“This spill will be lasting for years, if not for decades,” said Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. Sylvia Earle of the National Geographic Society warned that the spill, and such counter-measures as using chemical dispersants to break it down, “will permanently alter the nature of the area.” And, Earle said, “just about everyone on the planet” will be hurt. Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, put it: “You can skim it, you burn it … but these tiny particles in the water column will persist for God knows how long.”
Despite these divergent styles, I couldn’t find anyone in the scientific community who would publicly criticize Reddy — for his cautious remarks on the Gulf spill or anything else — perhaps because he is so careful and personable. The nearest I came were a couple of remarks on blogs urging him and others to be more leery of government data.
Reddy has received funding from oil-services company Schlumberger for research on petroleum geochemistry, but no oil-industry company has funded his work on oil spills.
“Chris Reddy was an eloquent voice reminding the community on numerous occasions what it means to be a scientist. The only problem was that not everyone chose to listen,” says John Kessler, an assistant professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University.
Reddy is passionate about the mission of science, including a passion for being dispassionate. Through his many op-eds and other articles, and numerous radio and television appearances, he’s become something of a rock star in talking about science.
“Chris is part of a new generation of scientists out there trying to communicate with the public,” science writer Wendy Williams put it. “He doesn’t have an elitist, ivory-tower attitude, as a lot of the older generation do. Meanwhile, he’s holding the line on misinformation and exaggerations about scientific questions while trying to get out the truth.”
Even as he continued to collect oil samples for analysis, the spill brought Reddy the “most satisfying experience of my career so far”: acting as academic liaison for the Unified Area Command put together by the U.S. Coast Guard as part of its leadership of response to the spill. There, he coordinated university and other researchers’ work with the Coast Guard, other federal and state authorities, and the private sector, further raising his public profile.
“There are plenty of other people in my lab who are better scientists than I am,” he insists, but he says he’s become pretty damn good at explaining how scientists work.
He has used such explanatory gambits as anthropomorphizing bacteria – comparing bacteria-eating oil in a spill to hungry teenagers going for the first available food source. But when the bugs then shift to a “better offer” of other stuff to work on decomposing, that shift can leave toxic hydrocarbons in the environment for an alarmingly long time, especially in coastal marshes.
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In blue jeans and a T-shirt, Reddy leans forward in his cluttered Woods Hole office, with its view of a windy Vineyard Sound, and emphasizes that it’s far too early to know the long-term effects of the Gulf spill. He notes how resilient the Gulf has been in the face of many other man-made insults and asks that citizens let much more data be analyzed before reaching conclusions about the spill’s long-term effects. Those data are fated to be frequently revised in the coming years in any case, which is how peer-reviewed science operates.
“Many people treated the spill as ‘CSI: Gulf of Mexico,’” he says. “But science isn’t like that. It can take years to understand the impact of something like the BP spill. There should be more respect for uncertainty.”
His public outreach aside, Reddy spends many hours in very rigorous research. As he took me into his instrument-stuffed lab, gently presided over by a colleague’s Australian cattle dog, Reddy recalled how impressed he was by the “resilience of nature.” One of the things that most surprised him on his trips to the Gulf was the stunningly fast disappearance of the crude oil that had coated stretches of Louisiana marsh grass soon after the spill. He’s still not sure why it exited so swiftly or where it went.
Such intriguing questions await analysis of incoming research data. The thrill of the chase was palpable in the lab when I visited as Reddy and his team seemed to be closing in on certain mysteries.
He suspects that one of the biggest scientific challenges will be gauging the overall ecological impact of injecting large quantities of chemical dispersants in deep water. “It had never been done before, and hence there was a risk,” he says, “but a risk taken by experts.”
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Reddy grew up in a prosperous family in Edgewood, R.I., and his social intelligence likely stems in part from growing up one of seven siblings.
The former high school and collegiate wrestler was (and is) very athletic, running high-school cross-country and playing baseball in addition to wrestling. As a young man, he was far from a bookish student. But his maternal grandfather loved engineering, technology and tinkering in his workshop, and Reddy attributes much of his early interest in science to him.
He attended Rhode Island College, and while not an A-student, he distinguished himself as a talented chemist. Recruited by several leading graduate schools, in the last stretch of college Reddy decided that he wasn’t “mature enough” for graduate-school work.
Then came a dark time, Reddy said with a rueful smile. He got a job doing chemical analysis for a small firm, but soon quit because “my boss was a jerk.” His next job: delivering long-stemmed cookies for four months — including once, humiliatingly, to an ex-girlfriend. He was depressed and aimless.
But he shook off the despair and took a job analyzing water and soil for a small firm. “It was a tough job and as close to factory work as you could get,” he recalls. “But I had to learn how to move fast and do things the right way, as many of my analyses were part of lawsuits. Those skills are part of the foundation of my career.”
His boss sensed the young man’s boredom and suggested that Reddy apply for the doctoral program at the University of Rhode Island’s famed Graduate School of Oceanography. He was admitted and began to build a reputation as an indefatigable researcher who got much of his data outdoors in the sun, wind and rain, at the sites of major pollution accidents. (He also does a lot of recreational kayaking in such places.)
His mentor at URI, biochemist and now emeritus professor James Quinn, says that Reddy was “one of the very best students I ever had. He did superb scientific work.” Quinn lauds Reddy’s enthusiastic and rigorous approach to discussing environmental accidents with major scientific implications.
While Reddy was working on his doctoral thesis, a big oil spill off Rhode Island in 1996 spurred both his excitement and his research. He incorporated research on the accident in his thesis, “Studies on the fates of organic contaminants in aquatic environments.”
But his best-known work before the Gulf disaster came in studying, starting in 2003, another spill, this one on Buzzards Bay, Mass., way back in September 1969, about a month after his birth. He and his colleagues discovered toxic compounds from the spill present in marshes — still harming the plants and animals — after more than three decades. This breakthrough work drew attention from environmental scientists — and environmental activists.
With those grim findings as a baseline, Reddy is hopeful about industry’s ability to learn from oil-spill disasters. For example, the petroleum and shipping businesses learned a lot about how to avoid and mitigate the effects of oil spills in studies of Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.
But not all lessons transfer neatly, and “every spill is different,” Reddy emphasizes. The cold water and rocky coastline of the Exxon Valdez spill site made for very different challenges than in the Gulf of Mexico. The northern Gulf, of course, has very warm surface water, which speeds oil decomposition, and a low, marshy coast.
Still, industry will have huge incentives to apply what it has learned from the BP spill, Reddy says, given the economic damage caused by that catastrophe.
Meanwhile, Reddy, owing to his concern about the ignorance and misinformation widely expressed during the spill and other accidents, plans to spend even more time in a role unusually public for scientists.
Reddy has studied for his emerging public role. In 2006, for example, he participated in the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, a joint effort of Stanford University and the Woods Institute for the Environment based there that seeks to improve communication between scientists and the rest of the world, in particular the media and policymakers. The program, named for the writer-ecologist, taught him more about the importance of delivering a “clear message, knowing the scientist’s audience and having the courage to speak out.
“Communicating with the public is risky,” he says, “but not daring to communicate is even riskier.”
Besides doing more public speaking, and producing more newspaper and magazine articles, Reddy plans to write a book on the often-awkward relationship between scientists and a public all too easily swayed by grossly premature conclusions and sensationalism by the news media and various advocates.
Meanwhile, he’s been co-teaching a course at Woods Hole on how scientists should deal with media questions.
He urges citizens to redouble their patience as scientists take the necessary time to try to understand what happened in the Gulf — and to distinguish between environmentalists, who have a public-policy mission, and environmental scientists, whose mission is to find and present the facts, whatever the policy or political implications.
In his main role as scientist, Reddy will continue his research into non-spill-related subjects, such as the use of algae in new biofuels. He’s now planning a big greenhouse on Vineyard Sound.
But for a while yet, he’ll be distracted by demands from the Gulf; as of this writing, he was studying the spill’s continuing impact on the Louisiana coast.
Maybe his work on algae will achieve a renewable-energy breakthrough that would reduce the need for petroleum. This would please Reddy to no end — whatever the satisfaction he’s gained from explaining the effects of the spilling of oil.
This article appears in our Sept-Oct 2011 issue under the title “Calm in the Eye of the Storm.” To see more articles from this issue, go to the Sept-Oct 2011 magazine page on Miller-McCune.com.