Tar balls could be mixing with seashells within two weeks if remnants of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico make their way to Lowcountry beaches as some expect.
Some ocean current forecasters say there's a good chance that the disastrous oil spill will work its way around the southern tip of Florida and begin moving up the East Coast.
"What you are going to get is a bunch of tar balls," said Phil Dustan, a College of Charleston biology professor who has studied the effects of oil drilling on downstream coral in the Gulf. "And that stuff is going to be around for a while."
A lot depends on currents and the wind.
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If the oil gets into the Gulf Stream, it would pass 40 to 50 miles offshore of South Carolina on its way north.
The problem is that once the Loop Current slips around the southern tip of Florida and into the Gulf Stream, part of that flow is fed into a current that heads up the Southeast coast closer to shore. Also, after the Gulf Stream passes the Charleston Bump - almost dead east of Charleston - it meets the Georgetown Hole, which pushes some of the current landward.
"The wind will play a pretty big role. If the winds push this stuff ashore, that's going to be pretty troublesome," said Ruoying He, an N.C. State University physical oceanographer. "It could be a pretty large impact, especially on the beaches."
By the time the spill reaches the Lowcountry, it's likely that most of the toxic compounds would be leached out of it, Dustan said, so the environmental damage probably would be limited to creatures that get caught up in it.
No one is sure how much oil is spreading along the ocean bottom from the well, or how that oil interacts with the water pressure a mile deep, he said.
Some experts say the chances of Lowcountry beaches getting hit with remnants from the oil spill are more remote.
Eric Chassignet, director of the Center for Ocean Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University, said his estimates put the Loop Current farther away from the spill than other forecasters.