OCEAN CITY – While anxiety grows over the potential environmental impact of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, coastal communities up and down the east coast including the coastal areas of Maryland are keeping a close eye on a variety of factors that could bring the spill’s aftermath to their shores.
On April 20, the high-tech Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the gulf exploded, killing 11 crewmembers before eventually collapsing off the coast of Louisiana. Over two weeks later, crude oil continues to stream out of the disabled well at an estimated rate of around 200,000 gallons a day and the resulting massive slick continues to lurk in the gulf with a variety of factors determining its future destination.
While coastal communities around the gulf are bracing for the worst, some models project the spill could get caught up in the swirling eddys, or loop currents, in the gulf that ultimately feed into the gulf stream and eventually around the tip of Florida and up the east coast. If that happens, and many scientists now believe it is more of a situation of not if, but when and how much, the lingering effects of the spill could reach the Carolinas and the mid-Atlantic region including Ocean City and Assateague and points north.
According to Dr. Bill Boicourt, an ocean current specialist with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, there is a wide range of factors that could bring the lingering effects of the massive spill to Ocean City, but the chances of that happening are not great at this point.
“The possibility of this spill reaching Maryland’s coast is very real and bears close attention,” Boicourt told The Dispatch this week. “However, there is a wide variety of factors that would have to fall into place to make that happen and most of them are pretty far-fetched.”
Boicourt said as the massive spill meanders around the gulf, influenced by a variety of factors including currents, the influence of freshwater from the Mississippi and wind speeds and directions, the chances of it getting swept into the gulf stream increases. Looping currents, or eddys, in the gulf often get swept into the gulf stream, a super highway of sorts around the tip of Florida and up the east coast.
“The probability of this spill getting into the gulfstream as more time passes is pretty high,” said Boicourt. “My primary concern right now is for the Florida Keys and the Everglades, but if this spill gets swept into the gulfstream, it can and likely will impact the Atlantic side of Florida, coastal areas in Georgia and South Carolina and even the Outer Banks of North Carolina.”
However, Boicourt said even if that happens, the odds of the spill reaching Maryland’s shores decrease for a variety of reasons. For one, the spill will likely dissipate as it travels great distances, and for another reason, the natural geography of the coastline will help buffer Maryland and much of the mid-Atlantic region from the spill’s impact, even if it travels this far.
Ocean City is often protected from the full impact of hurricanes and tropical storms along the east coast because the Outer Banks in North Carolina act as a buffer. Fast-moving storms along the southeast coast often bounce eastward when they hit the Outer Banks and spare coastal areas to the north their full brunt. Similar forces could be at work if and when the oil spill in the gulf gets swept around Florida to the east coast.
“Those factors help protect us in Maryland and the Chesapeake from coastal storms moving from the south and the same basic principles apply in this situation,” said Boicourt. “Is there reason for concern? Certainly, but there are a lot of if’s along the way and the potential for the effects of this spill reaching Ocean City appears unlikely.”
Meanwhile, the oil spill in the gulf, already being called the worst offshore oil accident in U.S. history, has raised concerns about the president’s plan to expand offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic region. In March, President Barack Obama announced a vast area off the mid-Atlantic coast totaling nearly three million acres could soon be open to offshore oil and natural gas drilling, bringing the domestic oil drilling debate within 50 miles of Ocean City and Assateague Island.
The initial reception was lukewarm at best, but the catastrophic accident in the gulf two weeks ago turned the tide, so to speak, on public opinion for the plan. In a letter to the president last week, Maryland Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin called for a re-evaluation of the offshore drilling policy.
“The tragic accident last week involving the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico makes it abundantly clear that the costs and benefits of offshore drilling need to be reassessed,” the letter reads. “Deepwater Horizon, which cost $600 million, is considered the most technologically advanced offshore oil rig in the world. That is why we are so concerned about the possibility of a catastrophic accident off our shores.”
On Wednesday, Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) voiced concern about the plan to drill for oil off the mid-Atlantic coast in a meeting with resort business leaders.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea then, and I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea now, given what’s happened in the gulf,” he said. “I strongly urge you to write your senators and congressmen and urge them to rethink this.”