Scientists are keeping their eyes on a giant stream of warm water that loops around the Gulf of Mexico to learn if oil will wash onto Florida's shores.
This "loop current" gets a bit of publicity during hurricane season, but it has never been more important to Florida than now.
If oil slops onto the Florida Keys, you can probably blame the loop current for sending it there. But if oil cruises harmlessly past Tampa Bay, you can probably thank the loop current for that, too.
To understand the loop current better, the St. Petersburg Times spoke on Tuesday with Frank E. Muller-Karger, a professor at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.
What protects Tampa Bay if oil gets into the loop current and flows alongside the Florida Shelf?
"What protects us is the distance between us and the edge of the shelf. The West Florida Shelf is very wide (more than 100 miles), at least off Central Florida. It becomes very narrow off of the Florida Keys. … So as the loop current flows south toward the Florida Keys and starts bending into the Florida Straits, that shelf becomes very narrow and anything in the loop current will be very close to the coast."
What would have to happen for that oil to get to the Tampa Bay area?
"There's probably two scenarios. One is that the oil creeps along the coast, the Panhandle, and slowly moves south along the coast and that would take probably weeks. … It (would) be a mess for northern Florida and the Big Bend area.
"If the oil gets caught in the loop current itself, it will shoot down to the Florida Keys. (That will take about) … a week to 10 days. For it to move from the loop current … across the shelf (toward Tampa Bay) you would have to have very strong winds blowing from the west to the east. … You would need to have a persistent, weeklong wind.
"But anything, once it gets into the Florida Shelf and it's there, it'll get blown around. It may disperse, it may evaporate, it'll certainly mix around and it'll become more dilute."
How likely is it that we could see some effect of this oil on the west coast of Florida?
"The Panhandle is, I think, a certainty. The middle of Florida, say Pinellas County, I think at the moment, the next week or two, is unlikely. Longer than that, if they cannot get this under control … there's many, many variables that we have to consider before we can say that it's going to happen here in Pinellas County.
"The most likely area where it may have an impact if it gets caught in the loop current and if it doesn't burn off … in that week of transit, it may end up in the Dry Tortugas, maybe or one of the Keys and then get into Florida Bay or go up the east coast. The question is, is that going to be a trickle of oil or is it going to be big patches of oil? We don't know that either."
Is the oil in the loop current yet?
"The oil is not in the loop current yet. … I think there is a likelihood the longer the spill goes on, that it will eventually get into the loop current.''