Gulf oil spill: Will it hit Miami, Fort Lauderdale soon?

Oil is more likely to keep moving east because of the so-called loop current, NOAA officials said in a report issued Friday. The likelihood of the Gulf oil spill soon hitting the Keys and the southeastern coast of Florida is 80 percent, according to the officials.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor
posted July 2, 2010 at 7:58 pm EDT

It is highly likely that oil moving through the Gulf of Mexico will soon end up affecting the Florida Keys and the Miami and Fort Lauderdale coastlines, say officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In a report issued Friday, NOAA officials say that oil is more likely to keep moving east than west to Texas because of the so-called loop current – a fast-moving underwater current from the Caribbean that has the potential to pick up oil from the south end of the slick and rotate it into the direction of the southern Florida coast.

The loop current is pushing oil through the Gulf at a rate approaching 100 miles a day.

According to NOAA, the underwater oil plume is currently 50 miles from Panama City, Fla., and 271 miles from St. Petersburg. So far, all beaches in the state remain open.

But the Gulf oil spill is already hitting the western Panhandle of Florida in the form of tar balls that line public beaches. Several beaches, including Pensacola Beach, where oil is predicted to wash up this weekend, have issued “oil impact notices” – advisories warning beachcombers and swimmers to avoid contact with the oil.

Although it was earlier predicted that the loop current would push the oil into the Gulf Stream, which would then send it far north along the Atlantic coast, new modeling shows that the chance of this happening is less than 20 percent, according to the NOAA report. The loop current is now expected to move the oil only as far north as North Carolina.

But the likelihood of oil soon hitting the Keys and the southeastern coast of Florida is 80 percent, NOAA officials say.

Oil reaching south Florida would have traveled about 600 miles, the longest distance that oil would have traveled from the undersea wellhead that erupted more than two months ago off the Louisiana coast. Floridians should expect oil on their shores in the form of brown pancakes or tar balls, NOAA scientists say.

The modeling used to make these predictions factors in how fast the oil is pouring out of the wellhead (up to 60,000 barrels per day, or 2.5 million gallons), minus how much oil is being skimmed, burned, or collected at the surface. The model also accounts for how much oil has weathered on the surface, because of either natural degradation or the use of dispersants.

The projections have built-in uncertainties because efforts to contain oil at the wellhead are expected to increase this month. By the end of next week, oil pulled out of the Gulf is expected to more than double – from about 25,000 to 53,000 barrels per day, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen in a briefing with reporters Friday. This is because a third vessel, the Helix Producer, is expected to be involved in oil collection by that time.

After that, the installment of a new containment cap could mean that oil salvaging rises to 80,000 barrels per day. A decision on when to install the new cap will take place in a week or 10 days, Allen said.

The timing of all these measures, he noted, is dependent on the weather and the course of hurricane Alex, which could force a suspension of the entire operation.

“In a perfect world, we want 120 hours [to dismantle operations]. You don’t know whether you’re getting it because Mother Nature gets a vote in these things. But we’re watching it very, very closely,” Allen said.

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