Florida Panhandle In Oil Spill Crosshairs

By Vickie Chachere

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (June 7, 2010) – For now, the winds are working in Florida's favor.

The latest projections from the University of South Florida's Ocean Circulation Group now appear that surface oil from the Deepwater Horizon Spill that reached northwest Florida shorlines last week may now be driven back offshore by forecast winds, said USF researcher and center director Robert Weisberg.

The remainder of Florida’s west coast, however, appears to be out of harm’s way for the near future.

“There is no imminent threat here,” Weisberg said of Tampa Bay area beaches. “Our risks are further down the road and the threat will increase if this well keeps leaking through August. But right now, there is no imminent threat.”

The Loop Current continues to protect most of the west coast of Florida from the oil flowing from the April 20 well rupture.  During the past two weeks the Loop Current underwent a process of eddy shedding, altering the pathway of the flow of oil, Weisberg reported.

While a small amount of oil is likely in the Florida Straits, other oil entrained in the Loop Current may be circulating around the eddy instead of taking a more direct path toward the Florida Straits, Weisberg said.

But the long-term outlook for Florida is less certain.

While eddy shedding may be good news, historical observations show that eddies can reconnect, and the satellite images over the past week suggest that this may be happening, he noted. Surface drifters used to track the movement of water in the gulf now have left the Loop Current and have entered the Florida Straits.

The main body of the oil remains near the well site off the coast of Louisiana, Ocean Circulation observations show.

Weisberg, however, said he is increasingly becoming concerned about subsurface oil deep in the gulf waters.

“A concern for subsurface oil is whether or not it will up well across the shelf break and onto the continental shelf - and sensitive fishing grounds - from where it could be transported along the bottom to the near shore,” Weisberg wrote in a report released Thursday.

For now, the subsurface oil does not appear to have moved toward the Continental Shelf break or east of DeSoto Canyon, itself a sensitive area vital to a healthy gulf ecology, Weisberg said.

“But with time it could get there, and with time it could up well on the shelf and with time it could make it here,” Weisberg said. “But it takes time. “

For the latest trajectory and information on the oil spill’s movement through the gulf from USF’s Ocean Circulation Group and Optical Oceanography Laboratory, click here. More information on how the center creates its models and forecasts can be found here.


To view an archive of articles on USF’s involvement in tracking the spill, see the special report page.