alabama beachs in Gulf Shores, on vacation
UF expert says oil spill could spread to east coast of Florida
By Joe Callahan
Published: Friday, April 30, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.
A University of Florida professor and oceanographic expert says he believes the east coast of Florida might see the worst of the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
At the same time, state health officials say the chemical-like smell reported to be wafting occasionally across parts of the state, including Alachua and Marion counties, has not been definitively linked to the oil spill but that they continue to monitor the reports.
Y. Peter Sheng, coastal and oceanographic engineer at UF, said the six-day ocean current models released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reveal that the western coast of Florida, from the Big Bend to Cedar Key, could be spared.
The oil slick that's growing south of the Louisiana coast could get caught in what's called the “Loop Current,” which flows through the Florida Straits and becomes the Gulf Stream.
The Gulf Stream runs up the eastern coast of Florida. Sheng said he believes it is entirely possible, even probable, that this will happen, thus impacting the beaches from Miami to Jacksonville. The Loop Current is about 35 miles south of the slick, which currently is 125 miles wide and 40 miles long.
“I would say the east coast of Florida has the higher probability (of being impacted by the oil spill),” said Sheng, adding his opinion is based on NOAA's ocean current forecast and wind direction.
Sheng said until the slick gets to shallow water, wind will not greatly impact the oil slick's movement.
If the oil slick doesn't get into the Loop Current, which would rapidly send the oil around the tip of Florida in a week, the wind direction would have to change from west to east in order to push the slick toward the western Florida peninsula.
If the spill encroaches on the shores east of Pensacola, Sheng said his biggest concerns are for wildlife and the oyster concentration in Apalachicola Bay. He said that since there is not a firm population count on most species, such as shrimp and types of fish, it will be ultimately hard to truly gauge the full impact on wildlife long after the spill is contained and cleaned up.
Sheng compared his prediction of the East Coast seeing more problems from the spill to how red tide, which used to be a problem mostly for the west coast of Florida, also entered the Loop Current and has more recently impacted the state's east coast, as well.
Lauren McKeague, with the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said state officials are treating the encroaching spill as they would a hurricane and will continue monitoring its growth over the weekend.
Karen Bjorndal, director of the Archie Carr Center of Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida, said she is extremely worried about the impact the oil spill will have on the sea turtle population, from the foraging areas to beaches where they nest.
The center is especially concerned about the most endangered of the sea turtles, the Kemp's Ridley, as well as other breeds, such as Loggerhead and green sea turtles.
Bjorndal said a floating oil slick can be problematic for these turtles, who surface to breathe. If they surface in the oil slick, they will become coated with oil and tar. That could affect their movement. The turtles could die if they swallow the substance. Thick tar could keep them from opening their mouths to eat.
And these slicks could impact the nesting beaches. If oil and tar coat the eggs, it could impact development. And since hatchlings don't know better, they have been known to eat almost any object that might be floating, from plastic to other materials, and will nibble on a ball of tar.
Bjorndal said an active Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network has volunteers throughout all of the Gulf Coast states and will be vital in finding affected sea turtles as they come ashore, whether dead or alive.
“We expect numerous sea turtles to wash ashore [during the emergency],” she said.
When it comes to the ecology, some experts say time could heal all wounds. John Jaeger, an associate professor of geological sciences at UF, said time can be a solution when it comes to clearing oil spills.
"Oil degrades as soon as it reaches an oxygenated environment, so the more water that oil goes through, the more likely it is to be converted into its different phases," Jaeger said.
Eventually, as the oil breaks down -- as it decays -- in the oxygen on the surface of the Gulf, some of it will evaporate and some will be broken down by microbes, a process that could take years.
Jaeger also said one problem officials are having in predicting where and how fast the spill will spread is determining the speed of the currents in the Gulf because NOAA doesn't have many buoys in the Gulf. He said that might be something officials take a look at after this disaster: How they can better monitor the spread of spills by evaluating water speed.
"I think you're going to see a serious evaluation of ... the ability to predict the fate of any spills that might occur in the Gulf of Mexico," he said.
One thing that came out of the Exxon Valdez disaster, he said, was an investment in better monitoring of the surface currents in Prince William Sound.
Meanwhile, with officials predicting possible landfall of oil on beaches in northwestern Florida by Monday, NOAA has contacted UF Sea Grant agents in Panama City to determine how they can assist with the impending disaster.
Steve Theberge, one of the agents contacted, said NOAA hasn't given them marching orders yet but is determining who can help and what their capabilities are, looking for everything from boat operators to those who can clean animals covered in oil.
Theberge said he's not sure how far he might have to travel to help out or what responders will need him for, but if the oil washes ashore, it's all hands on deck.
"If this hits, everything else will go on hold, at least temporarily," he said. "This will be the imminent crisis that needs to be dealt with."
And their involvement could last quite a while, he said.
Agents could be involved with researching the ecological and monetary impact for years to come, as well as figuring out when seafood will be safe to eat again and how to help the seafood industry get back on its feet, he said.
"Depending on how bad this is, it may change our lives and careers for a while," he said.
Staff writer Karen Voyles and correspondent Thomas Stewart contributed to this report.
Last edited by rosco 357 on Fri Apr 30, 2010 11:23 pm; edited 2 times in total