Currents may spread oil mass to the Keys, Atlantic seaboard

Though surrounded by land on nearly all sides, the Gulf of Mexico is by no means a stagnant body of water, which means that BP’s massive oil leak could easily move beyond Gulf Coast communities and hit the eastern United States.

The Gulf of Mexico Loop Current is fed by water moving into the Gulf from the channel between Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The current stretches into the Gulf near the U.S. coast, where it loops around and moves southeast to meet the Florida current and merge with the Gulf Stream. The fast-moving current then travels across the Florida Keys and up Florida’s Atlantic coastline.

The oil that has so far leaked from the wellhead about 40 miles south of the Louisiana coast currently remains well north of the Gulf Loop Current, but its direction could change at any time. NASA satellite images taken on Saturday appear to show some of the oil already being drawn south by the current.

Florida oceanographers say that the oil could appear in the Florida Keys and the Atlantic beaches and lagoons in a matter of weeks, arriving in expansive patches, small blobs, or tar balls. It all depends on where weather fronts move the leaking oil.

While most of Florida’s attention is on the oil that is drifting toward the Panhandle’s pristine beaches, other parts of the state are beginning to worry.

Much depends on how long it will take workers to seal the leak, which is gushing from three places in the riser pipe that was damaged when Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sunk.

“The best thing that could happen right now is that they shut the thing off,” Nicki Grossman, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Palm Beach Post.

“We can no longer afford to ignore doomsday scenarios, so of course we’re taking it seriously,” Grossman told the Post.

The Gulf Stream current is so powerful that fresh water from the Mississippi can be found deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

For visuals of the Gulf Loop Current, visit these pages: