Oil enters the Loop Current and is headed to the Florida Keys

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:38 PM GMT on May 17, 2010

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Satellite imagery today from NASA's MODIS instrument confirms that a substantial tongue of oil has moved southeast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and entered the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current. The Loop Current is an ocean current that transports warm Caribbean water through the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico. The current flows northward into the Gulf of Mexico, then loops southeastward just south of the Florida Keys (where it is called the Florida Current), and then along the west side of the western Bahamas. Here, the waters of the Loop Current flow northward along the U.S. coast and become the Gulf Stream. Once oil gets into the Loop Current, the 1 - 2 mph speed of the current should allow the oil to travel the 500 miles to the Florida Keys in 10 - 20 days. Portions of the Loop Current flow at speed up to 4 mph, so the transport could be just 4 - 5 days. It now appears likely that the first Florida beaches to see oil from the spill will be in the Lower Florida Keys, not in the Panhandle.


Figure 1. Satellite image of the oil spill taken at 12:40 EDT Monday May 17, 2010. The location of the Loop Current is superimposed. Image credit: University of Wisconsin and NASA.

Why is oil getting into the Loop Current?
The winds over the oil spill location are offshore out of the northwest today, and offshore winds will continue intermittently through Wednesday, which should allow a substantial amount of oil to enter the Loop Current. The major reason oil is moving southwards is because of the instability of the currents in the Gulf of Mexico. The Loop Current is not a stable feature, and tends to surge northwards and southwards in a chaotic fashion, and in response to changes in the prevailing winds. Over the past week, chaotic behavior of the Loop Current and a clockwise-rotating eddy just to its north, just south of the oil spill location, have combined to bring a current of southward-moving surface water to the oil spill location. As strong on-shore winds from the southeast slackened this past weekend, oil has been drawn southward into the Loop Current. The latest NOAA trajectory forecasts failed to anticipate the movement of the oil into the Loop Current. The latest surface current forecasts from NOAA's HYCOM model show that oil could continue pouring into the Loop Current for most of the rest of the week. It is highly uncertain how diluted the oil might get on its voyage to northwestern Cuba and the Florida Keys this week, but the possibility for a major ecological disaster in the fragile Keys ecosystem cannot be ruled out. Southeast to east winds of 10 - 15 knots are expected to develop late this week and extend into early next week, which may be strong enough to impose a surface current that will shut off the flow of oil into the Loop Current by Friday or Saturday.


Figure 2. Forecast made at 8pm EDT Sunday May 16, 2010, of the Gulf of Mexico currents by NOAA's HYCOM model. A persistent southward flowing surface current is predicted to occur this week between the oil spill location (red dot) and the Loop Current. Image credit: NOAA.

Likely areas of impact
Based on a study of 194 floating probes released into the Northeast Gulf of Mexico during a 1-year study in the 1990s (Figure 3), the west coast of Florida from Tampa Bay southwards to the Everglades is at minimal risk of receiving oil from surface currents. There is a "forbidden zone" off the southwest Florida coast where the shape of the coast, bottom configuration, and prevailing winds all act to create upwelling and surface currents that tend to take water away from the coast. This study implies that the greatest risk of land impacts by surface oil caught in the Loop Current is along the ocean side of the Florida Keys, and along the coast of Southeast Florida from Miami to West Palm Beach. Eddies breaking away from the Gulf Stream would also likely bring oil to northwest Cuba, the western Bahamas, and the U.S. East Coast as far north as Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, though at lesser concentrations. Southwest Florida cannot rest entirely, though--the "forbidden zone" is only true for surface waters, and there is onshore flow below the surface. Since recent ship measurements have detected substantial plumes of oil beneath the surface, southwest Florida might be at risk if one of these plumes gets entrained into the Loop Current. These subsurface plumes were also detected by current probes launched into the oil spill on May 8 by one of NOAA's hurricane hunter aircraft, according to one scientist I spoke to at last week's AMS hurricane conference. There are plans for the Hurricane Hunters to go out again tomorrow and drop more probes into the spill to attempt to get a better handle on where the oil is and where the currents are taking it.


Figure 3. Paths of 194 floating probes released into the yellow-outlined area in the northeast Gulf of Mexico between February 1996 and February 1997 as part of a study by the Mineral Management Service (MMS). The probes were all launched into waters with depth between 20 and 60 meters. Image credit: Yang, H., R.H. Weisberga, P.P. Niilerb, W. Sturgesc, and W. Johnson, 1999, Lagrangian circulation and forbidden zone on the West Florida Shelf, Continental Shelf Research Volume 19, Issue 9, July 1999, Pages 1221-1245 doi:10.1016/S0278-4343(99)00021-7

When will a Loop Current eddy break off?
Every 6 - 11 months, the looped portion of the Loop Current cuts off into a clockwise-rotating ring of water that then slowly drifts west-southwest towards Texas. When one of these rings breaks off at the peak of hurricane season, it provides a source of heat energy capable of providing fuel for rapid intensification of any hurricanes that might cross over. The Loop Current is not predicted to shed an ring over the next month, as predicted by the latest 1-month forecast from the U.S. Navy. However, the last eddy broke off in July of 2009, ten month ago, and it is unusual for the Loop Current to go more than eleven months without shedding an eddy. I expect we'll see the Loop Current shed an eddy in July or August, just in time to pose the maximum threat for hurricane season. According to an interesting February 2004 article published by offshore-engineer.com, reliable forecasts of these currents and eddies are not available yet. Keep in mind that surface currents are largely driven by winds, and wind forecasts are not reliable out more than about 10 days.

References
Yang, H., R.H. Weisberga, P.P. Niilerb, W. Sturgesc, and W. Johnson, 1999, Lagrangian circulation and forbidden zone on the West Florida Shelf, Continental Shelf Research Volume 19, Issue 9, July 1999, Pages 1221-1245 doi:10.1016/S0278-4343(99)00021-7.

Oil spill resources
NOAA trajectory forecasts
University of South Florida Ocean Circulation Group oil spill forecasts
ROFFS Deepwater Horizon page
Surface current forecasts from NOAA's HYCOM model
HYCOM ocean current forecasts from LSU

Jeff Masters

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1068. xcool
newwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww blog
Member Since: September 26, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 15648
Quoting weathersp:
WOW on the New Oreleans storm.. I don't think I've ever see a storm that is stationary go to 49,500 feet before. Usually the downdrafts squash the updrafts but here you even have a hail core at 20,000 ft(mabye 1/2" to 3-4") in there.



It's cause it's sucking up oil.
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1066. Patrap
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 423 Comments: 127836
Quoting weathersp:
Levi and 456. Thanks for the corrections, I am here to learn and provide input when I feel I think I have a handle on something.

Since I haven't posted in awhile here is a bit about me. Some of you may remember me, I have been posting here in the tropical season since 2006. I am a Senior in High School and am attending Millersville University in PA for Meteorology in August. I am a frequent poster on EasternUSWX and attending a conference on June 6th in Baltimore with Bill Read as a guest speaker. (very excited). And I recently shelled out a good amount of dough (for me at least) for a GR2AE copy, so you will be seeing those images as things come ashore, and I am also amateur photographer.


I am impressed weathersp. wish I had been so focused as you when i was your age!
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1064. Levi32
Dr. Masters has a new blog up.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26608
A little humor for everyone... The challenge has been laid down!



Frankly, I hope the chimp is right. But for some reason I don't take a lot of comfort in his method. ;)
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Quoting gordydunnot:
So do we have a consensus can it really rain cats,dogs and tar balls.


Oh my...
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Quoting weathersp:


Ablsolutly loved it since I first set eyes on it. To be fair its not a bad price compared to what you get out of it and its lifetime. It also great to support at home software devlopers and not some big company.


Yeah and that makes the customer support great as well. Speaking of which...if you have any questions about it dont hesitate to message me.

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1060. Patrap
Quoting StormTop5000:
there will be no raining tar...


Pharaoh said that about the fire and Hail too..

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 423 Comments: 127836
Quoting TropicTraveler:
mikatnight - that was my laugh out loud for the afternoon and I REALLY needed one~!


Thanks Traveler, but the others will probably tell you to not encourage me...
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Quoting NRAamy:
I can't believe JFV is missing out on the oil spill...
He has actually spoken about it on FB. He is not quite so annoying on there as he is on here and not on as often.
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there will be no raining tar...
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Quoting Stormchaser2007:


Glad to see that someone else has invested in GRLevel2 AE. Bought it 2 years ago and its been the best $250 I've spent in a while.



Ablsolutly loved it since I first set eyes on it. To be fair its not a bad price compared to what you get out of it and its lifetime. It also great to support at home software devlopers and not some big company.
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So do we have a consensus can it really rain cats,dogs and tar balls.
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Quoting weathersp:
WOW on the New Oreleans storm.. I don't think I've ever see a storm that is stationary go to 49,500 feet before. Usually the downdrafts squash the updrafts but here you even have a hail core at 20,000 ft(mabye 1/2" to 3-4") in there.



Glad to see that someone else has invested in GRLevel2 AE. Bought it 2 years ago and its been the best $250 I've spent in a while.

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Quoting weathersp:


GRLevel 2 Analisist Edition:
http://www.grlevelx.com/


Thank you very much!
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1051. Levi32
The 12z ECMWF Ensembles show the trough-splitting pattern nicely on Day 7, with a lowering of surface pressures in the Caribbean and the Bahamas but no significant troughs or lows on the ensemble mean.

500mb:



MSLP:


Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26608
Quoting kuppenskup:
Here's a stupid question but I figured I would ask the experts:
I live in South Florida. You know how Hurricanes suck up water from the ocean and then release? Well With the presence of this oil spill, if we had a Hurricane move in from the Gulf of Mexico would that mean there is a possibility of a Hurricane releasing the oil over land once the system moves inland? There's probably a simple answer but can anyone help me out on this one?


You mean evaporation and condensation of oceanic moisture, correct?

Assuming that, I highly doubt that oil will fall along with the precipitation, simply because oil has a less evaporation rate than water does, because the former is thicker.
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Quoting kuppenskup:


So even if it did this would not be a major oil event right, where a lot of things would be covered with oil gush?


Not liquid oil, tarballs...there may be some liquid oil, but I wouldn't imagne there'd be much
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
Quoting Papagolash:


What site/program are you using to get a cross section like that?


GRLevel 2 Analisist Edition:
http://www.grlevelx.com/
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1047. Patrap


*UPDATE IS HIGHLIGHTED*

ROBERT, La. - Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, EPA, Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, EPA, Dana Tulis, Acting Office Director, Office of Emergency Management, EPA, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA, and Dave Westerholm, Director, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, gathered to update the media and answer questions here, May 8. In the briefing, the Unified Area Command discussed several topics concerning the oil spill response efforts currently underway.

To hear the audio file, click here
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 423 Comments: 127836
Sorry to sound of simple or stupid but Im not a close follower of these things.
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Quoting Floodman:


There are a couple of schools of thought on this, but first off, the oil will not evaporate with the water; most think that by the time a serious system develops the oil itself will be mostly in the form of "tarballs" and yes, there is a high risk that large numbers of tarballs could wash up...I'm not familiar with the term sussenering


So even if it did this would not be a major oil event right, where a lot of things would be covered with oil gush?
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mikatnight - that was my laugh out loud for the afternoon and I REALLY needed one~!
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Quoting weathersp:
WOW on the New Oreleans storm.. I don't think I've ever see a storm that is stationary go to 49,500 feet before. Usually the downdrafts squash the updrafts but here you even have a hail core at 20,000 ft(mabye 1/2" to 3-4") in there


What site/program are you using to get a cross section like that?
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Just a minor problem in the gulf so far fishing has only been banned in 30% of it.So quit worrying in about 10yrs the microbes will have eaten all the oil, and will pull out there little hands and say look mom no chocolate mess.
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1041. soloco
WOW on the New Oreleans storm.. I don't think I've ever see a storm that is stationary go to 49,500 feet before. Usually the downdrafts squash the updrafts but here you even have a hail core at 20,000 ft(mabye 1/2" to 3-4") in there.

There was 1/4" hail & at least 1 confirmed tornado when it came through Texas
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Light rain cooling off those cat crackers Pat...
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WOW on the New Oreleans storm.. I don't think I've ever see a storm that is stationary go to 49,500 feet before. Usually the downdrafts squash the updrafts but here you even have a hail core at 20,000 ft(mabye 1/2" to 3-4") in there.

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Quoting earthlydragonfly:


Oil will not evaporate into the clouds. However, there is a real probability that storm surge could carry copious amounts of oil onshore.


That's not good. Thank you!
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Quoting earthlydragonfly:


Oil will not evaporate into the clouds. However, there is a real probability that storm surge could carry copious amounts of oil onshore.

I agree, somewhat. In addition, it is hard to come up with a way for the oil to join in the spray, but until I know otherwise, I'll have to assume that it is possible for small oil droplets to do so.

The more certain position is for oil to be present in any surge, of course.
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1035. RTLSNK
Quoting Floodman:


No, he was part of the general amnesty that took place here sometime ago...he may not know he isn't banned


psst, ssshhh, :)
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I wonder if the infamous Stormtop will be around this season?? From the kind of season they expecting I really hope his NOAA cropduster is up to code LOL
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Quoting kuppenskup:


Not sucking up water, but sussenering. Is there a chance oil would come inland?


There are a couple of schools of thought on this, but first off, the oil will not evaporate with the water; most think that by the time a serious system develops the oil itself will be mostly in the form of "tarballs" and yes, there is a high risk that large numbers of tarballs could wash up...I'm not familiar with the term sussenering
Member Since: August 2, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 9922
Quoting earthlydragonfly:


Oil will not evaporate into the clouds. However, there is a real probability that storm surge could carry copious amounts of oil onshore.


That's not good. Thank you!
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Quoting Tropicsweatherpr:
Levi32 ,the Gulf of Guinea continues to get colder.

Definetly not good. Well I'm checking for about 45 minutes, be back soon.
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1029. Levi32
Quoting Tropicsweatherpr:
Levi32 ,the Gulf of Guinea continues to get colder.



Yes, waiting to see if that cold tongue will extend westward and take over.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26608
Quoting Jeff9641:


Ok! I've noticed that the GFS is completely different than the Euro in the long range. I wonder which will be the correct model?


From the story I heard about the Euro-model the other day...

A few years ago, a hurricane was running up alongside the east coast of Florida.

The euro modelers had just finished their work and ran some model runs on the hurricane.

Every other model showed the hurricane sweeping up past GA, SC, and NC before turning out to sea. Their euro model showed the hurricane doing a 90 degree turn near WPB and out to sea.

The euro guys were perplexed. Was their model work that far off?

Guess what happened? Sure enough, that hurricane took a 90 degree turn at WPB and out to sea.

The rest is history. The euro model was the most accurate for that particular hurricane.

Most accurate in 2010? My money's on the euro! (pun intended)
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Quoting kuppenskup:
Here's a stupid question but I figured I would ask the experts:
I live in South Florida. You know how Hurricanes suck up water from the ocean and then release? Well With the presence of this oil spill, if we had a Hurricane move in from the Gulf of Mexico would that mean there is a possibility of a Hurricane releasing the oil over land once the system moves inland? There's probably a simple answer but can anyone help me out on this one?


Oil will not evaporate into the clouds. However, there is a real probability that storm surge could carry copious amounts of oil onshore.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting kuppenskup:
Here's a stupid question but I figured I would ask the experts:
Im live in South Florida. You know how Hurricanes suck up water from the ocean and then release? Well With the presence of this oil spill, if we had a Hurricane move in from the Gulf of Mexico would that mean there is a possibility of a Hurricane releasing the oil over land once the system moves inland? There's probably a simple answer but can anyone help me out on this one?
It's not a stupid question. I've been wondering the same thing. Waiting for the "pros" to check in with an answer.
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Quoting Floodman:


I'm not sure what you're talking about, "hurricnes sucking up water"?


Not sucking up water, but sussenering. Is there a chance oil would come inland?
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1024. soloco
Better buckle up, Patrap.......that system came through south TX with a vengence this morning.....60 mph gusts.
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Levi32 ,the Gulf of Guinea continues to get colder.

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OK. Here's something i don't see walking by the house everyday...or ever. Kept lookin at me like it new something i didn't. So i leaned down real close to it and it grabbed me by the ear and said, ."BP SSSSSUCKS!" Then it flipped me over its shoulder with a crab judo move before it wandered off. I took this pic right before it all happened just moments ago.

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1021. Levi32
Quoting Jeff9641:


Ok! I've noticed that the GFS is completely different than the Euro in the long range. I wonder which will be the correct model?


In my opinion the Euro seems to be one step ahead of the GFS on trying to figure this situation out.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26608
Quoting kuppenskup:
Here's a stupid question but I figured I would ask the experts:
Im live in South Florida. You know how Hurricanes suck up water from the ocean and then release? Well With the presence of this oil spill, if we had a Hurricane move in from the Gulf of Mexico would that mean there is a possibility of a Hurricane releasing the oil over land once the system moves inland? There's probably a simple answer but can anyone help me out on this one?


I'm predicting that 2010 will be remembered as the year of the "Petro-cane."
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1019. Patrap


OiL-mageddon 2010
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 423 Comments: 127836

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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