Navy Turns to Local Scientist to Reduce Oil Spill Risk

Mar 1, 2017

War is generally pretty bad for the environment, and, understandably, the environment is not one of the military’s top priorities when at war. But more Navy officials are now asking questions about how to tread a bit more lightly on the environment, and some are getting scientists outside the military involved.

Chris Reddy is one example. He's a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who specializes in oil spills, and last year, he got an email from a Navy lieutenant commander asking for his help.

"He asked me if I could help him in a large NATO exercise called Cold Response 2016. And I immediately saw the opportunity for an academic to reach out to a Navy personnel who wanted my input," recalls Reddy "The idea to reach out to a Naval officer to talk about oil spills was exciting."

The exercise being planned was a simulation - war game - in which Norway was split in half and the northern half was a NATO ally. As part of the exercise, the NATO forces wanted to sink one of the aggressor's oil tankers to prevent it from refueling other enemy vessels.

"When they were in the planning stages, they started to recognize the economic blowback, and potentially also just the perceptions and relationships that they had with their allies could be huge," said Reddy. "If they spilled the oil in the wrong place it would demolish or completely ruin the aquaculture and the fisheries."

Reddy talked back and forth with planners, and they eventually concluded that the location and timing would be the most important considerations. Planners needed to make sure the vessel wasn't right on top of important fishing or aquaculture areas, then sink it on an outgoing tide to push as much oil as possible away from valuable areas.

In the end, no ships were blown up. After all, it was only an exercise. But Reddy says something important was accomplished - they built a relationship that could come in handy during an actual battle or crisis.

"One of the biggest things that people learned from the Deepwater Horizon, in particular, is you don't exchange business cards at a crisis," quipped Reddy. "Now, I've built a relationship with this one Navy lieutenant commander. Hopefully, it got through the chain that we can be there for them to ask these questions."