The reach of the Gulf spill

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Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution about how far oil from the spill in the Gulf may have spread.

MARCO WERMAN: From Public Radio International, this is The World. A co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. It's Friday, July 16th. I'm Marco Werman. Today, good news from the Gulf of Mexico but the work to contain the oil spill is far from over. In one part of Ecuador, there may never be an oil spill. That's if the government makes it off-limits to drilling. Some say it's worth the price.

KELLY SWING: If we can't justify saving a place that has more species per square kilometer than any other place on the planet, what are we going to decide to keep?

WERMAN: Also today, a move in Israel that might make it harder for some to become Jewish. I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World. The cap is holding. That's the word today from BP. The company says it's found no evidence of oil leaking from its damaged Gulf of Mexico well since it put a new cap in place yesterday. President Obama said this morning that he's hopeful the fix will work, but that the disaster is definitely not over.

BARACK OBAMA: We won't be done until we actually know that we've killed the well and that we have a permanent solution in place. We're moving in that direction, but I don't want us to get too far ahead of ourselves.

WERMAN: Christopher Reddy directs the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He has been to the Gulf to study the spill. We've been hearing for months now, Christopher, about oil gushing from this well in the Gulf. What do we know about where this oil has gone? Where do you think it's gone?

CHRISTOPHER REDDY: Well, we certainly know that some of it's sitting on the surface of the ocean. We know some of it just by smelling it and analyzing the air that a lot of it has evaporated into the atmosphere. We know that some of it has come to shore. And then one of the big uncertainties is how much of it is below the surface or what they call subsurface plumes. Most oil spills, historically in the past, have been relatively shallow water, talking hundreds of feet or less. And now we're looking at an oil spill that's 5,000 feet, so we've had to reboot ourselves essentially and reconsider the way in which we sample and approach investigating where oil may be in other areas of the ocean.

WERMAN: It sounds like there's some uncertainties there. Will we ever be able to say for sure what happened to this oil and, if so, how?

REDDY: Well, I think there's a lot of data in the pipelines. You have to remember that it takes a little time to collect the samples, to process them. The data is trickling in about where some scientific effort might have found some oil at a certain depth, at a certain latitude and longitude. So as time comes on in the next couple of weeks to months, we'll begin to start constraining areas of where there may be higher levels of oil relative to lower amounts or no oil below the surface.

WERMAN: And even if this oil never leaves the Gulf, is it possible that its impact will be carried beyond the Gulf by animals, birds, and other vectors?

REDDY: I'm hesitant to make any estimates, but I would say that in most cases the effects of the Gulf will be mainly situated in the Gulf.

WERMAN: I mean even if not another drop of oil spills after today that this doesn't seem like it's over, though.

REDDY: Oh, no. Oh, no. I mean you have a significant amount of massive oil that's in the surface, potentially in the subsurface, perhaps even on the sediment on the bottom along the coastline. So the input term is now shut off, hopefully as of today, but we still have a lot of oil in the Gulf that still potentially can damage wildlife and other damaging effects. I mean in many respects today is time zero for any other oil spill. I mean most oil spills, a ship runs aground, they figure out a way to stop the oil within ten to twelve hours or so, or day. And then they deal with the oil that came out afterwards. So this is really in many cases what most oil spill responders deal with. The blood has stopped gushing in some place and now they're dealing with it afterwards.

WERMAN: What do you think is the biggest unexpected problem people might encounter in the Gulf of Mexico region that we haven't really thought about yet?

REDDY: I think what you might be surprised is to when we try to balance the books. That is how much did the oil go, perhaps evaporate. How much it was diluted into the Atlantic Ocean's [INDISCERNABLE] that it wasn't a problem. And all these processes that can act on oil. How much was skimmed, how much was burnt, how much hit the coastline on rocks and the rocks got picked up and taken away? So, somebody trying to kind of keep track of everything, like we would do with our checkbook.

WERMAN: Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Thank you very much.

REDDY: Yeah, my pleasure.