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Little threat here from oil spill

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POSTED: May 31, 2010 12:23 p.m.
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Dr. Dana Savidge

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Scientists say it will be at least two weeks before any surface oil from the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is carried northward by a loop current to merge into the Gulf Stream off the coast of Georgia. Because the continental shelf stretches 75 miles off Georgia’s shore, it is unlikely any oil will show up on area beaches or be washed into the state’s fragile coastal marshes, according to experts at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.
“I think we have reason to be relatively optimistic,” physical oceanographer Dr. Dana Savidge said. “Once (the oil) gets here in the Gulf Stream, it would still have to make its way across our continental shelf which is nice and wide.”
Savidge studies ocean currents, specifically the Gulf Stream and cross-shelf currents off the Southeast coast.  
“Science drifters are routinely put in the Gulf and don’t come ashore here,” she said.
Savidge explained by the time the oil enters the loop current south of Florida and travels northward toward Georgia and the Carolinas, the oil should be widely dispersed.
She said there are natural processes, such as microbes, that will help degrade the surface oil in Georgia’s waters. Some of the oil will form tar balls when it mixes with saltwater, Savidge added.
“It’s traveling slowly. There will be time for these (natural) processes to work before the oil gets here,” she said.
Savidge said these natural processes are not as effective in water that is deeper and colder than that of the Gulf and nearby Atlantic Ocean. Tar balls that form in frigid ocean waters, such as those formed by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s waters, are more impervious to micobrial degradation than surface oil slicks, she said. Impervious tar balls have an estimated one-year lifetime, according to Skidaway’s Web site, www.skio.usg.edu.
The oceanographer said when an oil spill occurred in 1979 from the ship IXTOC west of the Yucatan Peninsula, Skidway scientists found no evidence of tar balls in waters off Savannah or New Smyrna Beach, Fla. They did find tar balls in the Gulf Stream, she said, but none within 40 miles of Georgia’s coast. Texas, however, was severely impacted, Savidge said.
Because the oil spill from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig occurred just off Louisiana’s coast, Gulf Coast residents are experiencing a “deluge,” according to Savidge.
“I would not want to downplay the horrific tragedy there,” she said.
The oceanographer said North Carolina has more reason to worry about surface oil from the Gulf than does Georgia.
“The shelf is narrower there and so they’re less isolated from the Gulf Stream,” she said.
Savidge estimates surface oil will travel a mile per hour, or half a degree of latitude a day.
“There are eight or nine degrees of latitude between here and Miami,” she said.
Although Georgia need not be overly concerned about surface oil from the spill, the environmental impact from sub-surface oil is “more difficult to predict,” Savidge said.
Skidaway Institute officials admit an “extreme event” like a hurricane could push oil in the Gulf Stream onto the continental shelf and Georgia’s coast.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources advises residents not to panic about any worst-case scenarios.
“As of right now no watches or warnings have been issued,” said DNR spokesperson Nancy Butler. “We are in a wait and see mode.”
Butler said DNR will “advise and assist” any plan implemented by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should there be an environmental threat to Georgia.
Earlier this week BP had implemented a “top kill” method of pouring heavy mud into the spewing oil well in an attempt to stem a gushing flow of oil into the ocean. But, Saturday, the company was saying it was still not known  how successful this attempt might be.
In addition, the Associated Press reported President Obama will continue a moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling for six months until an investigation into the Gulf oil spill is completed. The president was also due to announce delays in drilling off Alaskan waters and cancellations of pending lease sales off Virginia’s coast.
The oil spill began when an oil rig exploded on April 20 off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 people and causing millions of gallons of oil to pollute the Gulf and fragile wetlands. The spill has also crippled that area’s fishing industry.
 

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