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Oil In The Gulf
NAPLES — Southwest Florida’s beaches could be spared a coating of crude if the oil spewing from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico gets caught up in the Loop Current.
The powerful clockwise current runs north from the Caribbean before looping back south through deep waters some 200 miles west of Collier and Lee counties before sweeping east, endangering fragile coral reefs and coastlines in the Florida Keys before heading up the east coast.
“It’s very unlikely we’ll see anything on the west Florida coast,” said Steven Murawski, chief science adviser for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.
Satellite images show a tendril of light oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster has reached “close” to the Loop Current, and it is “increasingly likely” that the spill will get entrained in the current _ if it isn’t already, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco said Tuesday.
She said NOAA is trying to get a better picture of the Loop Current’s location by dropping sensors into the slick in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Lubchenco said it would take persistent winds out of the west or an eddy spinning off the main current to carry the oil to Southwest Florida.
“Out of an abundance of caution,” she said, NOAA is expanding the area of the Gulf closed to fishing.
The new closed area covers almost 46,000 square miles _ nearly 20 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf _ along the path of the Loop Current as far south as offshore of Naples. The closed area is far offshore from Naples, in federal waters.
Murawski, with NOAA, compared the effect of the Loop Current on the oil spill to pitching machines that hurl baseballs toward a batter.
Like those machines’ dual wheels, an arm of the spill seems to be wrapped between the Loop Current and an eddy north of it.
The eddy could pull some of the oil north, away from the Loop Current, while the Loop Current could push oil south, Murawski said.
“We don’t know that fraction,” he said.
A team of researchers at the University of South Florida says the slick already is on its way.
Four ocean experts using five computer models said part of the slick may reach Key West by Sunday or Monday, the Middle Keys by next Wednesday and Miami by next Friday.
The models don’t account for the effects of dilution or evaporation on the slick, but that was little comfort to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
“While I always hope for the best, this is looking like really out-of-control bad,” Nelson said Tuesday.
Lubchenco, at NOAA, was more measured in remarks in a conference call with reporters Tuesday on the Loop Current threat.
“This is a time for caution and preparation but not overreaction,” Lubchenco said. “We will continue to be forward leaning as we have from the outset.”
She acknowledged, though, that most of what NOAA knows about the oil spill comes from surface observations. Much less is known about the trajectory of underwater plumes of oil, she said.
“Science is a very dynamic process and we’re in the very early stages of discovery with this particular phenomenon,” she said.
Research vessels are collecting subsurface data, and NOAA is trying to model how water is flowing below the surface.
Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, in partnership with Rutgers University, launched an underwater robot offshore of Venice on Monday to patrol for oil on the Continental Shelf, between the Loop Current and the shoreline.
Mote also has funding to launch two more gliders later this week _ one to patrol between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor and the other in the Florida Keys.
Both the spill and the current change on a daily basis, Lubchenco said.
She said the “main bulk” of the spill still is “dozens of miles away” from the Loop Current.
If the oil gets entrained in the Loop Current, the oil will becoming increasingly diluted and weathered as it travels south, she said.
That process will change the nature of the oil into long strings of oil and mostly tarballs, she said.
NOAA has sent tarballs that washed ashore on Key West this week to a U.S. Coast Guard marine safety lab in Connecticut for analysis to see whether they are connected to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Earlier statements by NOAA of a connection later were corrected to say the possibility of a link is still getting analyzed.
On Tuesday, beachgoers reported black lumps washing up on Fort Myers Beach but they likely are common sea creatures, said Justin McBride, marine scientist for the Lee County Division of Natural Resources.
“It looks like something biological to me and not tarballs,” he said.
McBride had not seen the items in person, but after looking at photos of them, he said they appear to be a type of mollusk akin to a sea snail.
They can wash up on the beach with the tides, similar to the way sand dollars wash ashore, and aren’t necessarily dead when they do, he said.
Satellite observations show that a tendril of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster has reached close to the Loop Current, but more study is needed to confirm whether the oil has been entrained in the powerful current, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco said this morning.
The Loop Current could carry oil offshore of Southwest Florida and to the Florida Keys and up Florida's east coast.
Lubchenco said NOAA is expanding the area of the Gulf closed to fishing "out of an abundance of caution" to cover almost 46,000 square miles - nearly 20 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf.
"This is a time for caution and preparation but not overreaction," Lubchenco said. "We will continue to be forward leaning as we have from the outset."
She said it is "increasingly likely" that the spill will get entrained in the powerful clockwise current of warm water if it hasn't already.
NOAA is conducting aerial flights today and dropping sensors into the Gulf to get a better picture of the Loop Current's location, Lubchenco said.
Both the spill and the current change on a daily basis, she said. Lubchenco said the "main bulk" of the spill still is "dozens of miles away" from the Loop Current.
If the oil gets entrained in the Loop Current, the oil will become increasingly dilute and weathered as it travels south, she said. That process will change the nature of the oil into long strings of oil and mostly tarballs, she said.
Tarballs that washed ashore on Key West are on their way to a U.S. Coast Guard marine safety lab in Connecticut for analysis to determine whether they came from the spill, Lubchenco said.