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USF geologist says oil threatens dunes, nesting areas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Large waves driven by Hurricane Alex pushed oil higher up Florida's Panhandle beaches and toward critical bird-nesting areas on barrier islands, USF geologist Ping Wang said Friday as he and students concluded their fourth trip to the area to document the Deepwater Horizon spill's impact on the once-pristine sands.

Working from Panama City Beach west toward Alabama, Wang said the oil-laden waves left the world-famous white sands stained dark yellow to light brown in some areas and did exactly what he'd predicted: pushed oil higher up the beach and toward dunes that are critical wildlife habitat areas. Areas 60 to 100 feet from the water's edge are now contaminated with oil, Wang said.

"It's actually very bad, just as bad as the last time (the oil) came up on Pensacola Beach except this time it is much more widespread," said Wang, whose work is funded through a National Science Foundation Rapid Response grant.

The researchers have not encountered any oiled birds, although injured birds have been found on Pensacola Beach as recently as this week. On Perdido Key, Wang said he found a sea turtle nest that had been covered by a tar ball. State and federal biologists have launched an ambitious plan to relocate some 800 sea turtle nests to rescue the hatchlings from oil.

Wang said he and his students also continue to find a thick layer of sunken oil some six-inches deep into the sand on those beaches, along with tiny tar balls that can't be picked up in a manual beach-cleaning effort. In some areas, oil giant BP has sent in machines to clean the beaches but their efforts were stalled by bad weather, Wang said.

In  June, Wang, delivered a report to the National Science Foundation following his studies along a stretch of coastline from Alabama’s Dauphin Island to the eastern end of Santa Rosa Island in Florida, chronicalling beach contamination that had occurred in early June. His findings were the first scientific documentation of the significant Florida  “beach-fall” of the Deepwater Horizon Spill on June 3.

Working with USF graduate students Mark Horwitz, Tiffany Roberts, Katherine Brustche and Jun Cheng in June, the team found tar balls were found along 160 kilometers (more than 99 miles) of the overall 180 kilometers (nearly 112 miles) of beaches they studied. Their report was delivered to NSF as part of the Coastal Research Laboratory’s effort to provide baseline beach condition and initial beach oiling.

After studying 17 sections of northeast gulf beaches and six marsh areas in the eastern Mississippi Sound, the team from USF’s Coastal Research Laboratory found cleanup efforts don’t necessarily return the beaches to their pristine state. Manual beach cleanups still leave the sporadic appearance of tar balls in about 20 to 40 percent of the contaminated area, the researchers reported.

The tar balls left behind were small, but researchers also found larger ones buried in the sand. Buried oil is more difficult to remove and may decay more slowly than the exposed tar balls, thus having longer term effects, Wang said.

“When the massive landfall happens, it won’t be so easy to clean up,” Wang said, adding the research team continues to closely monitor the movement of the oil spill and will conduct another field study if major oil beach-fall occurs.
On this weeks assessment trip, Wang and the students surveyed the area from Panama City Beach west toward the Florida-Alabama state line.

Wang said he is not optimistic about what the coming months will bring. The strengthening of the summer sea breeze will provide stronger on-shore forcing to push the oil onto the beach, and the looming hurricane season remains a worrisome factor.

“High waves and storm surges are capable of spreading the oil contamination over a much larger area than the narrow beach zone where the tar balls are currently found,’’ Wang said. “It doesn’t need to be a major hurricane to push the oil onto the shore and spread over a large area, including numerous bird nesting areas, it just needs to be a storm.”

Filed under:Arts and Sciences Research Geology School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics  
Author: Vickie Chachere