Weather experts say the gulf oil spill, if it does get blown onto the shore, is more likely to wind up in Louisiana or Mississippi than to reach any beaches in Florida. The nearest Florida dunes are at Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach, which lie about 150 miles northwest of where the rig sank.
Had the rig, Deepwater Horizon, been drilling in Florida's state waters, the results would probably have been more dire, oceanographers say.
If the rig had been as close as 3 miles away — the limit proposed by state legislative leaders this year — "the most likely scenario would be for the sea breezes to bring all the problems to the coast; then, depending on which way the wind is blowing, it would be carried to the north or to the south," retired Florida State University oceanographer Wilton "Tony" Sturges wrote in an e-mail responding to questions from the St. Petersburg Times.
Either way, he said, "the people along St. Pete Beach would not be happy."
Since the waves along the gulf coast tend to be small ones, he added, they would do little to break up the oil naturally before it reached the sand. Once it got on the beaches, he said, getting it cleaned up would be nearly impossible. He noted that on the Alaska beaches that were coated with oil by the Exxon Valdez when it wrecked 20 years ago, scientists are still finding pockets of oil.
"The real story here is that as careful as the drillers may be (and I believe that they are very good at what they do), accidents can happen, even with low probability of occurrence," University of South Florida oceanographer Robert Weisberg said in an e-mail replying to the Times.