New Projections Show Gulf Oil Surging Up Atlantic Coast

By Jillian Scharr
|  Friday, Jun 4, 2010  |  Updated 1:14 PM EDT
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A still from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research's video shows the projected range of the BP oil spill at day 132. Researchers say the oil will be carried northeast by Atlantic currents and miss Tri-State shores.

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New projections show that currents will soon carry oil from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean and up the Eastern seaboard -- but won't hit New York, probably.

The projections, released yesterday, on day 45 of the BP oil spill, come from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) -- which, despite its name, routinely studies ocean currents as well.

The NCAR released a video from a computer model, which shows that the oil will begin to drift around the tip of the Florida Peninsula around day 72 of the spill -- and then currents will quickly carry it around Florida and up the  East coast.

It will reach North Carolina by day 80 and then flow east into the Atlantic Ocean.

"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Will the oil reach Florida?' Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood," said NCAR scientist Synte Peacock, in their report.

However, Peacock and the other researchers also emphasize that this is a "simulation" and not a "forecast."

The results were achieved using a computer program that simulates dye traveling through ocean currents. So no actual dye was released into water; the computer instead reached its projection by calculating the dispersal rate of a "dye tracer."

The report admits that the programmed  "dye" has little physical similarity with oil.  The dye in the model "has the same density as the surrounding water, does not coagulate or form slicks, and is not subject to chemical breakdown by bacteria or other forces," the report indicates.

"It is impossible to accurately predict the precise location of the oil weeks or months from now," NCAR said in its report, instead calling its projections "an envelope of possible scenarios for the oil dispersal."

Nevertheless, Tri-Staters are on alert.

"I think everybody who has a fishing boat or goes fishing is thinking about it a lot," New Jersey fishing boat captain Howard Bogan told NBCNewYork last week.

Other researchers agree that the oil spill will probably not reach New York.

"The likelihood is small," Dr. Josh Kohut of Rutgers Marine and Coastal Sciences told NBCNewYork last week. "There are connections that link the Gulf of Mexico to our region in the ocean but the exact pathway is so unpredictable and so many things have to fall into place,"

The oil rig from which the spill originated was in relatively stagnant waters, according to the report, which is why the oil has been "relatively confined," according to the report. However, the spill is projected to reach the Loop Current, which runs at up to 40 miles per day counterclockwise from the Yucatan Peninsula through the eastern Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic between Florida and Cuba, around day 70. 

After that, the oil will meet the Atlantic Gulf Stream, which will carry the oil at speeds of 100 miles per day  up the East Coast and into the North Atlantic Ocean, according to the projection.

The colors in the video represent oil dilution relative to the concentration at the spill's source.  Highest concentrations are indicated in red and the least concentrations in pale yellow.  Places with a .01 dilution, then, have a concentration of oil equal to one-hundredth of the concentration at the spill site.

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