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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 05/ 3/2010

Could oil slick hitch a ride out of Gulf of Mexico?

By Andrew Freedman

Also, any impact on hurricane season?

* After showers, warmth stays: Full Forecast | Oil spill photos *

Surface ocean current forecast for Tuesday evening. Stream of brightest colors (highest speeds) -- running north from the Yucatan Channel, into the Gulf of Mexico and then east, southeast and around Florida -- is known as the Loop Current. Enlarge and animate through 144 hours. Credit: NOAA.

With an unknown quantity of oil still gushing from the severed pipeline at the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, the oil slick on the surface seems to be slowing its advance toward the coastline -- at least for now.

As Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist for the Weather Underground, wrote yesterday, "... Trajectory forecasts now show the advance of the oil will slow over the next few days, despite the strong onshore winds. This is probably due to the fact that the shape of the Louisiana coast is setting up a counter-clockwise rotating eddy over the ocean regions between the Mississippi coast and the mouth of the Mississippi River."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal/state agencies are continuing to monitor the path of the oil slick, as anxious Gulf Coast residents, many of whom depend on the region's fisheries for their livelihood, anxiously watch the slowly unfolding ecological disaster.

The longer the leak and the associated oil slick persist, the more likely it becomes that some oil may become entrained into the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current, which could transport the oil and its impacts on wildlife and coastal ecosystems all the way to the east coast of Florida.

Seasonal average Loop Current for April-May-June. Credit: CIMAS.

The Loop Current is a fast-moving current that transports heat from the Yucatan Channel northward into the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. From there, the current curves southeastward, all the way to the southern tip of Florida, where it rounds the peninsula and moves northeast as the more famous Gulf Stream. The current can spawn swirling eddies that wobble warm water westward in the Gulf as well.

If the oil slick were to become entrained in this current -- which is by no means a sure bet at this point -- then areas of southern and eastern Florida could be affected by the spill as well. However, this should be thought of as just one of many worst-case scenarios from what at this point is a slowly unfolding, major manmade disaster.

Both NOAA and Louisiana State University issue Loop Current forecasts, such as the one pictured at the top of this post, which vividly depict the transport of water through the Gulf, down and around Florida, and back up the East Coast.

Hans Graber, founder of the University of Miami's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing, told the Associated Press that oil entrainment into the Loop Current would magnify the consequences of this spill. "It [oil] will be on the East Coast of Florida in almost no time," Graber said. "I don't think we can prevent that. It's more of a question of when rather than if."

Interestingly, the Loop Current and its associated eddies also play key roles in boosting the strength of hurricanes that pass over them. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, which devastated the Louisiana coastline as well as portions of Alabama and Mississippi, rapidly intensified when it encountered part of the current.

Inadvertent Weather Modification?

In what could be an odd twist of fate, if the oil slick persists into hurricane season (which begins on June 1), and a tropical storm or hurricane happens to stumble upon it, then some scientists could finally witness a real-world experiment of their proposed weather modification technique. Researchers such as Hugh Willoughby, the former director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, and Kerry Emanuel, a tropical cyclone expert at MIT, have hypothesized that coating the ocean surface with an oily sheen would theoretically reduce evaporation and sap a hurricane of some of its strength.

Computer modeling experiments have not been encouraging, however, pointing out problems caused by a hurricane's strong winds. "When the winds blow at 100 knots, there really isn't an ocean surface," Willoughby told Popular Science in 2005. "It goes from water full of bubbles to air full of spray, with a smooth transition between the two."

According to the article, Willoughby "says the trick is to formulate a liquid-like substance that clings to the surface of the ocean even during violent winds. "It could be sprayed by a bunch of 100,000-ton tankers."

Perhaps this manmade disaster will allow Willoughby to prove the feasibility of his idea. It may be the only way to do so, since as CWG's Steve Tracton explained last year, NOAA has not exactly been enthusiastic about pursuing weather modification schemes, and for good reasons.

By Andrew Freedman  | May 3, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Environment, Freedman, Tropical Weather  
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Just a side note; How many Die Hard jokes must Mr. Graber from UM have had to dealt with back in the 90s?

Posted by: Brian-CapitalWeatherGang | May 3, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | May 3, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Ahhhhh, nuts....

Posted by: Brian-CapitalWeatherGang | May 3, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Let’s hope that the oil company executives got paid out with sufficiently large bonuses, earned by cutting corners, so as not to be unduly inconvenienced for this science fiction scale catastrophe. Perhaps this will get rid of those pesky fisherman, nature lovers, and tourists, who just get in the way. Seriously, if they did care about anyone else they would have had a plan in place. The fact is, executives are already paid out, and have no stake in what happens next to their large corporations or banks. An act of unspeakable violence has been done. What we really need to pray for is PEACEFUL change, because any non peaceful change will sow the seeds of its own illegitimacy, and only replace one problem with another .

Posted by: dragonfly2 | May 3, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

the oil spill THAT IS STILL HAPPENING just makes me want to cry. anybody have stats on how much oil has been released so far and at what rate it's still leaking?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 3, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 3, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Drill baby, drill!

Posted by: ennepe68 | May 3, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Drill baby, drill!

Posted by: ennepe68 | May 3, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

We have friends that have a cottage on the beach around the 20 degree North line on the western side of the Yucatan peninsula. Does it look like the oil will circle back around and effect those beaches as well?

Posted by: celestun100 | May 3, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | May 4, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Walter, but how awful. Poor birds, turtles,fish, Louisiana, us.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 4, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

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