Satellite view of the Gulf of Mexico oil slick taken earlier this week
The large oil spill from the demise of the Transocean drilling rig Deepwater Horizon briefly affected Southwest Florida earlier this week with a petroleum-like smell mainly affecting coastal residents and visitors.
Since the April 20th explosion and subsequent sinking of the rig, thousands of barrels of oil have been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 200,000 gallons per day of oil is now reported to be spewing forth from the site in the northern Gulf, and the wind and wave action is now slowly carrying the slick primarily to the northwest toward the fragile coastlines of Louisiana and possibly Mississippi.
Through early next week, that’s where the oil slick will be driven — toward the northern Gulf Coast.
Capping the wells
The disaster from the rig explosion and collapse has already released more than two million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In a crude oil leak, some of the heavier elements of the leak will sink in the waters of the Gulf, while much of it will be “lighter” and will float, creating the “slick” we’re hearing so much about.
If the leaks cannot be capped in the coming days, it’s possible a “relief well” might have to be drilled to eventually shut off the flow of oil. That could take weeks to accomplish.
Possible future threat to Florida
If the well cannot be capped, and the flow not stopped soon, then a significantly larger oil release could threaten many other areas along the Gulf of Mexico coast, possibly even Florida.
It’s very important to note that there is no imminent threat to our coastlines.
However, if there is a protracted spill — one that continues for weeks or months — many other areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico could potentially see impacts.
The Loop Current is a warm current of water that flows through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and the western tip of Cuba and into the Gulf offshore of Southwest Florida.
That current shifts position somewhat from time to time, but generally flows north, then west well offshore Louisiana, then southeast and east exiting through the Florida Keys and the Florida Straits into the Atlantic Ocean where it is then generally known as the Gulf Stream.
The present position of the northern extent of the Loop Current isn’t that far away from the spill area. A movement of the oil slick to the southeast a hundred miles or so would possibly place oil in that “river of water” moving toward the southern tip of Florida and the Keys at three to six feet per second, about two to four miles per hour.
The present forecast is that southeasterly winds will persist in the northern Gulf of Mexico through the weekend, pushing the oil farther away– well away from the northern edges of the Loop Current. It’s hoped that the spill can be contained or stopped before wind currents change in coming weeks.
Impacts to Southwest Florida from a protracted spill
I think it’s very fortunate that this spill did not happen even one month earlier, when wind and wave action could have driven it directly toward Florida.
However, any oil that eventually could get into the Loop Current could get this problem closer to our shores — within a hundred miles or less in a bad scenario.
Now that we’re entering our normal summertime weather pattern, winds will typically have a southerly component. In most cases, that wind direction could direct wave action away, or at least parallel from our coastline, would protect us from any threat.
We are going to be entering the hurricane season soon, however. A disturbance, tropical storm, or hurricane could impact a sheen of oil contaminants greatly, and that unlikely — yet possible — factor is impossible to predict.