USF Scientists Track Spill

USF Scientists: Deepwater Horizon Spill Oil in Loop Current; Complex Water Movement Slows Slick's Threat to Florida

By Vickie Chachere

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (May 27, 2010) – Oil spreading from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well has reached the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current, but predicting where the oil is going continues to be a challenge for scientists.

The fast-moving, warm waters of the Loop Current and the unprecedented nature of the spill require constant monitoring. The latest estimates from the USF College of Marine Science's Ocean Circulation Group released Thursday indicate a portion of the Loop Current moving clockwise could keep the oil slick away from the southern Gulf for a few more days, allowing the oil to become more weathered. The circling loops within the current, however, are known to reconnect.

Using data gathered from five different models tracking the spilled oil, the group - led by USF physical oceanographer Robert Weisberg - expect that the oil will move rapidly through the warm water of the Loop Current. Earlier projections had put the oil on a path from the northern gulf to the Florida Keys and then continue through the Straits of Florida and up the Atlantic Coast. The new projections potentially buy Florida a few more days before the oil nears ecologically sensitive areas of the gulf.

USF researchers on a mission aboard the R/V Weatherbird II to further investigate the spread by collecting water samples and using high-tech sensors which will be able to gather data on conditions in the gulf. The R/V Bellows returned from the Loop Current on Monday and has reported no obvious signs of oil there. However, researchers did find what they suspect could be a small patch of weathered oil. Additional lab studies are underway to verify the material and its possible origins.

Images from a NASA satellite analyzed by optical oceanographer Chuanmin Hu show the oil slick reaching the upper edge of the Loop Current this week. The satellite images show the thick fingers of a silvery sheen that has grown each day since the April 20 collapse of a rig leased by British Petroleum.

What satellite images can't detect, however, is what is below the surface. Scientists have determined there is a vast plume of oil underwater, but researchers have not had an opportunity to determine if that plume has spread in the depths of the Loop Current.

The Loop Current is described as a “conveyor belt” about 100 miles off Florida's west coast that moves some 27 million cubic meters of water a second. Scientists believe the warm underwater stream is pulling oil from the spill southward where it has the potential to move toward the Florida Keys, the Straits of Florida and the Atlantic Coast.

Click here to see the latest trajectory.



The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.