Expert says chances are slim that oil could reach South Carolina coast

June 3, 2010 

Despite the dire model released Thursday by the National Center for Atmospheric Research suggesting oil from the Deep Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico could spread up the East Coast, current conditions in the gulf and the geological features of South Carolina's coast could keep the state's beaches oil-free for the short term, according to one oceanographer.

"The situation at the moment is actually favorable for South Carolina," said Sasha Yankovsky, physical oceanographer and assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, on Tuesday.

Oil from the gulf will have to pass through three specific ocean current systems to reach the East Coast, he explained.

The first is the Loop Current, which moves water along Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula into the gulf and toward the west coast of Florida. The loop grows larger until it forms a closed circle that breaks away from the main current. According to Yankovsky, oil entered that current but became trapped in one of the eddies it created. That spins the oil back toward the Gulf Coast.

The second system involves the Florida Straits, which meet the Loop Current near Key West. The straits are a current that moves water around the tip of Florida and into the Gulf Stream. So far, no oil has entered the straits.

The third system is the Gulf Stream, which moves water up the East Coast.

If, or when, oil reaches the Gulf Stream, South Carolina's coast may be less vulnerable than other areas because the continental shelf stretches 50 to 60 miles offshore, Yankovsky said. The Gulf Stream runs along the edge of the shelf, which means any oil would probably remain far offshore.

"The oil represents much larger dangers for areas with smaller shelves than for our locality," he said.

However, even these circumstances may not keep oil away indefinitely.

"What will happen in (the) long term is hard to say," Yankovsky said. "There is a significant amount of oil hanging around the gulf."

He also said currents change with weather and wind patterns. The Loop Current's movements could adjust and pick up oil again, with the potential to spread it to the East Coast. Once there, offshore storms could then push oil from the Gulf Stream onto South Carolina's beaches.

Local emergency responders say they are working with state and federal agencies to prepare.

"We have been in touch with the Coast Guard," said Paul Rasch, emergency management coordinator for the Town of Hilton Head Island. "They are positioned and ready to fight this thing all the way around Florida if necessary and then start up the coast with it."

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