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Gulf oil spill heads for Florida and the Atlantic coast

June 3, 2010 | 12:58 pm

Oil from the massive BP spill is all but certain to reach Florida and travel up the Atlantic coast as early as this summer, according to six simulations of the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current, the National Center for Atmospheric Research announced Thursday.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?’ said NCAR scientist Synte Peacock. “Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood.”

Another NCAR scientist who asked not to be identified said that a tendril of oil is already in the Loop and is on a potential trajectory to arrive at the Florida Keys. The modeling results, captured in a series of dramatic animations, were released today.

The Loop Current is the large flow of warm water that dominates circulation within the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It connects the Yucatan Current, which enters the gulf through the Yucatan channel, to the Florida Current (which flows out of the gulf between Key West and Cuba).

NCAR scientists and collaborators used a powerful computer model to simulate how a liquid released at the spill site, which is in a relatively stagnant area of the gulf,  could disperse and circulate. It showed that the liquid would spread slowly until it is entrained in the Loop Current. At that point, speeds pick up to about 40 miles per day, and once the liquid enters the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, it can travel up to 100 miles a day, or 3,000 miles a month, according to NCAR.

Scientists have also begun to study what would happen to the oil once it reaches the Atlantic. Would it eventually contaminate European coasts? “Our assumption is that the enormous lateral mixing in the ocean, together with the biological disintegration of the oil, should reduce the pollution to levels below harmful concentrations,” said Martin Visbeck, a member of the research team from IFM-GEOMAR in Kiel, Germany.

According to NCAR, the simulations are not a “forecast,” because it is impossible to accurately predict the exact location of the oil at any precise time. The trajectory depends on regional weather conditions and variations of the Loop Current, which can be predicted only a few days in advance.

That is why NCAR ran six models with different assumptions -- but they all coincided. “The simulations all bring the oil to south Florida and then up the East Coast,” NCAR announced. “However, the timing of the oil’s movement differs significantly depending on the configuration of the Loop Current.”

Florida biologists have been sounding the alarm for weeks that the spill could taint the state’s wildlife-rich mangrove swamps and the waters that feed the Everglades. The state’s tourism industry, which depends on clean beaches, could also take a massive hit.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Video: NCAR + UCAR via YouTube