Cover Story: Gulf oil spill - Carolinas impact

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - White sands, crashing surf, toxic soup and gooey tar blobs.

The worst oil spill in U.S. history could hit the Carolinas sooner rather than later.  Threatening our wildlife, our coastal economy and possibly your vacation plans.

The leak has been plugged.  Yet the pipe is still spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico - 500,000 to 1-million gallons each day.

Friday, globs of tar started washing ashore in the Florida panhandle.  But it could be just a matter of time before we see the same.

Six different computer models show oil getting caught in what's called the loop current - moving down around south Florida and up the east coast.

But predicting the ocean is like playing Russian roulette.

Weeks ago when this thing burst, some were predicting oil would be coming ashore immediately.

So predicting with any accuracy where the oil is going to go next is next-to impossible.  Still it has many concerned as the summer vacation season heats up.

Off the South Carolina coast, it was hard to imagine the Gulf misery fouling life here.  But on the ocean it's on your mind.

"I'm concerned about every single beach there is on the whole planet. It's not right," says Debbie Oloughlin, from Charlotte vacationing in Myrtle Beach, SC.

It's a sentiment echoed by the Jenkins family from Canton, Ohio who stopped at South Carolina's Welcome Center.  They're on their way to the beach - Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Dave Jenkins says he's been following the news coverage.  He says, "We've been watching it because of going on vacation. Seeing where it was going to end up and what they're going to do."

New computer models released show that leaking oil could flow up the Atlantic coast as soon as this summer.

Geochemist and professor at UNC Charlotte, Dr. John Bender showed us how that's possible.

The oceans he says are filled with currents.  The Gulf Stream for example is a major current is 10-to-15 miles across and a couple thousand feet deep.  It stays together as it moves within the ocean like a river.

On any given day the Gulf Stream moves 500-times the volume of water that the Amazon River does.

From the Gulf if oil gets into so-called Loop Current, which flows into the Florida current, emptying into the Gulf Stream.. then it's off to the races.

"If this right scenario went you could see it off the coast of Carolina in months. That would put it sometime late fall maybe during the winter," says Dr. Bender.

However he adds the ocean is an unpredictable animal.  Not only are there currents, there are winds, tides.  What gets stirred up by hurricanes, high and low pressure systems.. all variables that could have an effect on where the oil winds up.

"We may never see it," he said, "and then again we may get hit hard. You just don't know what the ocean's going to do."

What concerns many - oil deposits that have not surfaced, the so-called plumes.  No one know how many there may be.  Should they get sucked into the currents and eventually rise to the surface all bets are off.

"Just how much stuff it's going to ruin.. how much wildlife it's going to kill," said Dave Jenkins.

Off North Carolina's coast, the Gulf Stream lies about 60-to-80 miles from shore.  So if oil is sucked into the Gulf Stream it may not have as much of an impact.

The Gulf Stream is closer to the shoreline along Florida.

If this does get carried into the Gulf Stream, it could be carried all the way to Europe.

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