Even if oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill eventually slides up the East Coast, scientists said Friday the impact along the Carolinas seaboard will be minimal compared to the disastrous scene playing out in Louisiana.
"It's a long trip from the Gulf of Mexico to here," said Susan Libes, a Coastal Carolina University marine science professor. "During the trip, the petroleum will lose its toxicity."
Because the weathering journey from the site where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded is so long, the crude reaching eastern beaches at the peak of tourist season will likely come in nothing more than a smattering of tar balls, experts said. Environmental damage will be minimal, with only the slimmest chance of oil-blanketed beaches and struggling wildlife.
"It will be more a matter of curiosity than anything else," said Larry Cahoon, a professor of biology and marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
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That's good news for the Grand Strand and its neighbors, which rely on the shoreline to draw the tourists that fuel the region and state economy.
"The chances are very slim that we will experience any problems along the Grand Strand," said Myrtle Beach city spokesman Mark Kruea. "Areas south of us will experience it before we would, so we would have some notice. It would have to hit Florida, Georgia and Charleston in order to get to Myrtle Beach."
For vacationers eyeing their summer plans, it's been much more than a curiosity so far, especially after a National Center for Atmospheric Research model projected this week that parts of the oil spill could reach North Carolina within the next month. Although the model determined that any oil reaching the East Coast would be heavily diluted, the graphics showed an ominous color spreading along the coast.
In the Myrtle Beach area, Libes said there "has been an assessment of resources" that can help if tar balls reach the area.
"There's a low probability of a bad event, but you want to prepare so you can be ready to act," Libes said. "If tar balls do wash up, it's in our best interest to get tar balls cleaned up as soon as possible."
Kruea said no one is quite sure if the Gulf Stream will transport oil or what quantity it will carry.
"I anticipate we will hear a false alarm or two," Kruea said. "We'll prepare to deal with false alarms. It is something to monitor, but nothing to worry about at this time."
On Tybee Island, Ga., Stacye Jarrell has been fielding phone calls from worried customers who've booked rental homes and condos through her business. Jarrell said several have cited the center's projection, which shows a possibility of oil creeping perilously close to Georgia's 100-mile coastline.
"We've had a lot of calls from people who are very concerned," said Jarrell, owner of Oceanfront Cottage Rentals on the tourist-dependent island 18 miles east of Savannah. "I think everyone is sufficiently terrified."
She's been trying to calm concerned customers with details about Georgia's unique geography. The Georgia coast makes up the westernmost part of the eastern seaboard, and the Gulf Stream threatening to carry oil up the Atlantic coast is about 70 miles from Georgia's beaches.
"We believe truly that the Gulf Stream is going to be our biggest defense," Jarrell said.
The Gulf of Mexico oil made its first appearance Friday at the Florida Panhandle and continued to trickle into the powerful loop current that will pull it around that state's peninsula. From there, the Gulf Stream will serve as a highway to quickly carry it up the East Coast and deep into the Atlantic.
Gulf Stream waters move at 4 or 5 mph and meander like a river under the influence of winds, temperatures and storms. The Gulf Stream is narrow near Miami, where it's just a few miles from shore and oil could more easily be pushed to land by an easterly wind. The current grows wider and more unpredictable as it travels north and far to the east of Charleston, before passing close to the elbow of North Carolina's Outer Banks and heading out to sea.
Scientists believe it's only a matter of time before some oil will make its way up the East Coast.
"I think it's almost inevitable. The question is how much and how soon," said Dana Savidge, who studies the Gulf Stream and coastal circulation at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, a research arm of Georgia's public university system. "Not to pick on the modelers, but you know how well we predict the weather."
Cahoon said remnants could dribble along the seaboard into next year. Currents frequently spin off the Gulf Stream and toward the coast in a counterclockwise direction, meaning whatever oil is pushed to the north could churn toward beaches.
John Brubaker, an associate professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who teaches physical oceanography, said it's difficult to predict where those Gulf Stream rings will form. Although the current shoots away from the East Coast and far from northeastern states, one offshoot could swing back toward Chesapeake Bay. Others could curl closer to the Carolinas or Georgia.
Either way, the impact will be nothing like Louisiana.
"With the dilution and the tar ball formation, I don't really see a scenario where real thick deposits of oil are going to be washing up on our beaches," Brubaker said.
Staff writer Janelle Frost contributed to this report.