The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could switch directions and hit the Texas coast within a few days if currents change, says a Texas A&M University oceanographer with years of experience in marine oil pollution.
Piers Chapman, head of the Department of Oceanography, says that winds and currents in the Gulf are prone to change quickly. While almost all of the oil spill - currently larger than the state of Delaware - is still threatening the upper Gulf Coast east of the Mississippi delta, conditions could change over the next few days and bring the spill in a more westerly direction towards Texas.
"Everything hinges on the inshore currents and which way the wind is blowing," Chapman explains.
"We should know in the next 2-3 days if the spill is headed toward Texas. The latest forecasts have winds from the southeast for the rest of the week while trajectories show that the general coastal current movement is westward from Louisiana to Texas. Both of these will push oil to the west and onshore, so if the oil continues to leak for several more weeks and the prevailing winds and currents continue, then we could easily see some oil washing up on Texas beaches."
But Chapman adds, "Crude oil tends to evaporate quickly, so the most toxic components and about 30-40 percent of the total volume will have almost certainly disappeared by the time it gets here. This leaves the longer chain of organic compounds in the 'chocolate mousse' that results as oil and seawater form an emulsion.
"Although these are less toxic, the oil-water mixture will still cause smothering of bottom-dwelling organisms if it gets into shallow water or onto a shoreline."
While no one wants to see oil make landfall, Chapman says if oil does hit Texas beaches, it "is relatively easy to clean up.
"When oil emulsifies, it becomes gooey like salad dressing, but it's much easier to clean up oil or mousse on a sandy beach than it is in a marsh, such as the hundreds of miles of marshes in Louisiana, when it becomes a real problem," he adds. "Either way, some wildlife will almost certainly be affected, mainly birds and perhaps turtles.
"When oil covers up birds, it is especially difficult to get it off of them," he notes.
"It requires numerous steps of wiping the oil off the bird, and doing so repeatedly. It's very labor intensive, and the results are not always promising. Oil is especially stressful to birds, and you have to stop them preening and ingesting oil from their feathers before they are thoroughly clean."
As for fears that the Gulf's "Loop Current" might bring the oil to Texas, that is likely not to happen, Chapman adds.
"The Loop Current only rarely gets west of where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf and it always flows east toward Florida," he notes. "So there is really no chance that the Loop Current could bring the oil spill to Texas.
"But the winds and the inshore currents are a different story."