Government scientists are confirming what has been, since the Deepwater Horizon blowout, one of the worst-case scenarios: the spill is likely to reach far beyond the gulf coast and extend thousands of miles along the Atlantic coast and open ocean as early as this summer.
Using computer models of ocean currents, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, part of the Commerce Department, conclude that once the oil in the uppermost ocean has been picked up by the Gulf of Mexico's energetic Loop Current, it is likely to reach Florida's Atlantic coast within weeks. It can then spread north with the Gulf Stream as far as Cape Hatteras, N.C., and then turn east into the open ocean.
The results have been reviewed by other NCAR scientists and by researchers at other institutions, but not yet submitted for publication in a science journal.
"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Will the oil reach Florida?'" NCAR's Synte Peacock said in a statement. "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."
The computer model simulates how a liquid released at the site of the BP well would disperse, and does not depend on how much oil is eventually released. The model tracks the dispersal in the top 65 feet of the water and at four additional depths, down to just above the sea floor.
Although not a rock-solid prediction, the simulations provide "an envelope of possible scenarios," NCAR explains. The precise course of the contamination will depend on weather and the changeable Loop Current. Once the oil is in the Loop Current, it will travel about 40 miles per day. In the Atlantic's Gulf Stream, it can travel about 100 miles per day.