The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has already polluted more than 100 miles of the Louisiana coastline, and has started coming ashore in Alabama and Mississippi. It is highly likely that the slick will hit beaches on the Florida panhandle this week.
But could the oil spill reach even further, possibly into the Atlantic Ocean? According to a group of government scientists, their computer model points to such a possibility.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded Gulf of Mexico over a month ago, oil has gushed from the undersea well at an estimated rate of 800,000 gallons per day. So far, the growing slick has stayed in the Gulf, but that could change, according to the model, which was developed National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
The agency’s computer model found that if the slick makes it into Gulf Loop Current, it is likely to reach Florida’s Atlantic coast within weeks. It can then move north as far as about Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with the Gulf Stream, before turning east. Once the oil is in the Loop Current, it will travel about 40 miles per day. In the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, it can travel about 100 miles per day.
Whether the oil will be a thin film on the surface or mostly subsurface due to mixing in the uppermost region of the ocean is not known.
NCAR released six model simulations today, all of which have different Loop Current characteristics, and provide slightly different scenarios of how the oil might be dispersed. The simulations all bring the oil to south Florida and then up the East Coast. However, the timing of the oilâ€™s movement differs significantly depending on the configuration of the Loop Current, the statement said.
NCAR stressed that the course plotted by the model is only a prediction, not a forecast. It did not account for regional weather conditions or other factors that would impact the movement of the slick.
Additional model studies are currently under way, looking further out in time, that will indicate what might happen to the oil in the Atlantic, NCAR said.