The Gulf of Mexico loop current

A change in the loop current could give Florida a break from oil spill. | Learn more about the spill's potential impact.

At time of spill

Map of gulf currents at the time of the spill

1. The current begins in the gap between Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Each second, millions of gallons of warm water shoot from the Caribbean Sea through the gap and into the Gulf of Mexico.

2. Underwater features called shelves, along with the Earth's rotation, help turn the current east toward the Florida peninsula.

An eddy forms

Map of gulf currents when an eddy forms

1.Normally, if nothing alters the loop current flow, the oil, which has drifted down into the current, would be pulled south along the current's edge and eventually find its way to the Florida Keys and on into the Gulf Stream.

2. But, as it periodically does, an eddy has formed to the southeast of the loop current and pushes into it.


 

Currently

Map of gulf currents now

1. The eddy, known as the Tortuga Eddy, moves farther west, and usually will begin to pinch off the top of the loop current.

2. As the top of the loop current separates, much of the oil entrained within will move with it to the west.

Eventually

Map of gulf currents in the future

1. As the top moves west, the bottom reroutes itself, going more directly from the Yucatan through the Florida Straits.

2. The Tortugas Eddy will eventually disappear, allowing the loop current once again to travel north into the central gulf.

 
Graphic by John Corbitt
Source: USF professor Frank Muller-Karger
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After a deepwater drilling rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana on April 20, about 4.9 million barrels of oil spewed into the water. The spill was capped on July 15, but its aftermath still affects Florida.

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