“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?'” says NCAR scientist Synte Peacock, who worked on the study. “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.”
The computer simulations indicate that, once the oil in the uppermost ocean has become entrained in the Gulf of Mexico’s fast-moving 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. 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.
The scientists used a powerful computer model to simulate how a liquid released at the spill site would disperse and circulate, producing results that are not dependent on the total amount released. The scientists tracked the rate of dispersal in the top 65 feet of the water and at four additional depths, with the lowest being just above the sea bed.
“The modeling study is analogous to taking a dye and releasing it into water, then watching its pathway,” Peacock says.
The model simulations show that a liquid released in the surface ocean at the spill site is likely to slowly spread as it is mixed by the ocean currents until it is entrained in the Loop Current. At that point, speeds pick up to about 40 miles per day, and when the liquid enters the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream it can travel at speeds up to about 100 miles per day, or 3,000 miles per month.