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NAPLES — The Gulf of Mexico current that could carry oil and tarballs to Florida has been showing signs this week of changing course.
University of Miami oceanographer Peter Ortner cautioned Friday, though, that while computer models show the Loop Current might be getting close to shedding an eddy at its northern end, it’s far from a sure thing.
“I take that with a huge grain of salt,” Ortner said.
The Loop Current is a stream of warm water, like a conveyor belt, that runs north past the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it loops back south, passing far offshore Southwest Florida and then eastward to the Florida Keys and up the East Coast.
A kink in the current as it heads south has loop watchers’ eyes.
Surface waters on the eastern edge of the Loop Current have been sliding west, a motion that eventually could pinch off the flow of water _ and any oil entrained in it _ on its Keys-bound course.
Instead, an eddy would separate from the main current and be sent spinning into the middle of the Gulf.
The problem is that the models are only measuring surface currents and it takes more than that to slice into the Loop Current.
To do that, the Gulf’s deep-water currents would have to be doing the same thing they appear to be doing at the surface, and the newly shortened Loop Current would have to find a new path to the Keys after it enters the Gulf, Ortner said.
Forecasters say the Loop Current is about due for such a course change, but predicting its timing is more art than science.
“It’s not the kind of thing we can reliably tell with the models,” Ortner said.
Even if it were to happen, the Loop Current’s gyrations sometimes cause it to break apart and then rejoin, which would put Florida back in the path of the oil slick, he said.
So far, no oil or tarballs have washed up on Southwest Florida’s coastline from BP’s oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
At least 210,000 gallons of oil have been spewing from a damaged well at the bottom of the Gulf for the past month. The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people. It sank two days later.
A Collier County tourism official derided as a hoax a video, dated May 19 and posted to YouTube, purporting to show tarballs that had washed up at the Naples Pier. The video since has been removed.
Florida’s congressional delegation is growing increasingly worried about what’s lurking below the Gulf surface.
In a letter Friday, the lawmakers urged President Obama to step up efforts to figure out how much oil is below the surface, where it is and where it is headed.
The University of South Florida’s research vessel Weatherbird II plans to leave this morning from Tampa on a six-day mission to look for plumes of subsurface oil.
A key part of the cruise will look for oil contamination in the DeSoto Canyon, off the northeastern Gulf shelf, where scientists suspect oil may be pooling.
On the surface or below it, the oil spill’s eventual destination has coastal monitors in Florida in preparation mode.
A plan is under review to begin sampling water and sediments at more than 150 spots between Hernando and Collier counties along Florida’s west coast and in the Florida Keys, said Lee Edmiston, director of the state’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas.
The idea is to create a baseline of conditions along the coast now to measure against any damage that could come from the BP spill.
Other state and federal agencies are planning to test oyster and fish tissues, Edmiston said.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/