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Q&A: How much should we worry about the loop current?

Computer models indicate oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill may already be entering the powerful ocean loop current, say researchers from the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.

The oil potentially could have pervasive effects on coastlines, coral reefs and wildlife, researchers say.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, professor Frank Muller-Karger, a biological oceanographer with USF, addresses several concerns.

Is there oil in the loop current or not?

The USF researchers studying the spill have been analyzing NOAA, NASA and European satellites that indicate that trace amounts of oil may have gotten swept into the loop current. It's a very small plume, and it is oil that has been in the water for weeks, so it continues to break up in dispersant chemicals and is susceptible to evaporation. It is also miles from the strongest part of the current — the middle — so it's not necessarily being streamlined in any particular direction yet.

If there are traces of oil in the loop current, how soon could it reach Florida? And will it get swept into the Tampa Bay area?

If the oil that has been detected at the sea surface continues on the loop current path, it would likely take at least a week or longer to reach the Florida Keys area, researchers say. And again, it is such a small amount, it wouldn't have much of an impact if it reached land. It could bypass South Florida altogether and sweep around to the East Coast, where it would likely disperse in various directions.

There are no forecast models that show the loop current pushing oil toward (Florida's) west coast or the Tampa Bay area, though researchers can't say this definitely won't happen. Too much is unknown about how much oil there is, and how this current might affect its movement.

That doesn't sound too bad. What's the big deal?

It's not necessarily this particular bit of surface oil that concerns researchers. It's what it says about what lies ahead, and what may be happening under the surface. The USF researchers are worried that huge oil plumes that sit underwater could also be swirled into the loop current or some other current, and it's damage they cannot yet see or measure.

Right now, there are only theories about how bad it could be, and how much oil could be caught in the loop current without us being able to see it.

What happens if the spill reaches Florida's coral reefs, which have such a huge impact on the rest of the ocean's marine life?

Most scientists agree that oil in Florida's delicate coral reefs would have devastating effects. But the USF researchers are hoping the majority of oil — the thicker plumes sitting deep underwater —would not be able to reach the shallow, highly oxygenated waters where the coral reef sits. If that surface oil seen in the models were to get that close to the Florida coastline, they're hoping it would break up or wash up in the form of tar balls so it would be easier to clean.

With all the satellite images and the distinct color of the oil, why can't we be more certain about how much of it is in the loop current?

Researchers say cloudy conditions have obscured their view of the sea surface over the last couple of days. And on their mission, they didn't focus on loop currents as much as they studied plankton and sea life near and inside the spill. They plan on setting out on another vessel later this week to study the loop current up close, and underwater glider devices will study what's happening underneath.

They are hoping the sky will clear up in coming days and allow them to view the loop current more clearly. Even so, the loop current is at times unpredictable, and as the oil spill grows, so do the number of possible scenarios for Florida waters.

Q&A: How much should we worry about the loop current? 05/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 8:04am]
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