Maryland Professor: State’s Coast Should Be Safe from Gulf Oil

May 26, 2010

Barring a hurricane or strong storm, mid-Atlantic beaches should be safe from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a University of Maryland researcher.

The Gulf Stream heads away from the continental shelf north of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras and that means oil carried by the stream should be carried away from the coasts of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, said Jim Carton, chairman of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland.

The oil is now entering the gulf’s loop current, and is expected to eventually make its way into the Gulf Stream, said Carton, who estimated oil from the spill could be off the Maryland coast in less than three weeks.

“Somebody asked whether this Memorial Day could be affected by this, and I figure there’s no way,” Carton said. “But it could be a summer issue for parts of the East Coast.”

Florida would be hit first, and beaches in New England that are often bathed by warm eddies from the Gulf Stream also are more likely to see oil, Carton said.

However, the researcher said winds from storm systems could blow tar balls ashore in Maryland.

“It’s entirely possible,” Carton said.

Wes Tunnell Jr., associate director of Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, said any oil that would reach the mid-Atlantic would not have many of crude oil’s most volatile and toxic components, which evaporate along the way, leaving only heavier, asphalt-like tar that forms into balls.

“Probably all you guys would see up there would be tar balls on your beach, and it would be very weathered,” Tunnell said.

Tar balls often wash up on gulf beaches, created from crude that naturally seeps from the gulf floor, Tunnell said.

Tar balls warmed by the sun “can get kind of gooey,” and could affect creatures right under the tar ball, but the impact would be minimal, he said.

Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for Ocean City, Maryland’s largest beach resort, said city officials have not been told to expect any significant problems.

If tar balls do wash ashore, Abbott said Ocean City has “an outstanding public works department and other staff members who can handle any cleanup situation.”

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