Oil slick enters Gulf loop current

From the Orlando Independent Examiner:

NASA satellite imagery on Monday shows that the rapidly expanding oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico has entered a powerful current known as the Loop Current, which flows through the straits of Florida and along the eastern seaboard as far north as North Carolina before heading out into the Atlantic. The entrance of the oil slick into the Gulf Loop Current is what officials fear will be a catastrophic event.

The pollution could endanger Florida’s shoreline mangroves, sea grass beds and the third-longest barrier reef in the world, the 221-mile-long Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Millions of snorkelers, fishermen and other tourists are drawn to the Keys each year, whose dollars are vital to the state’s economy.

This is bad news for Florida residents. Once the oil is in the loop, it could reach the Keys in as few as 10 days. “It’s only a question of when,” said Peter Ortner, a University of Miami oceanographer. The Sun-Sentinel reported that the oil slick not only poses a danger to the Florida Keys, but also to the southeast coast from Miami to West Palm Beach and as far north as coastal North Carolina.

“When” could be sooner rather than later, as the Coast Guard reported today that tar balls have already been found on the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West on Monday. Park rangers conducted a shoreline survey of the beach and the adjacent Navy beach at Truman Annex and recovered the tar balls at a rate of nearly three tar balls an hour throughout the day, with the heaviest concentration found at high tide, around 12:30 p.m.

According to the satellite imagery, the oil slick on the surface of the water has rapidly increased in size. SkyTruth, an independent research organization, states that “the total area covered by slick and sheen, at 10,170 square miles… is nearly double what it appeared to be on the May 14 radar satellite image, and is bigger than the state of Maryland.”

Several researchers in the Gulf last weekend, furthermore, reported the discovery of giant plumes of oil beneath the surface of the water, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick, suggesting that the magnitude of the leak is far greater than BP and the federal government have estimated. The general consensus among scientists is that the leak is anywhere between four and 15 times greater than the official estimate.

These reports indicate that the majority of the oil in the Gulf is located below the surface of the waves. Scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican are attempting to map the plumes in order to determine if they will also be transported east in the Loop Current.

This news comes just after a report of BP’s first break of good luck after claiming that they have been successful in installing a siphon into the main leak. That siphon may be able to capture five to 40 percent of the oil erupting from the floor of the ocean, based on the 5000 barrel per day estimate.

Florida residents are asked to report the sighting of any tar balls to the U.S. Coast Guard at 1-800-424-8802. Any oiled shorelines can be reported at 1-866-448-5816.