Fast Eddy Saves the Florida Keys [w/video]

"BP made it sound as if their clean up work saved the day...when, in fact, natural phenomena intervened"

12-21-2010 // Bob Serata

The Gulf oil disaster is over. BP, the world’s third largest oil company, says so.

Bob Dudley, group chief executive of BP and former Amoco executive who grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, about an hour and a half drive from the coast, said: “No oil has flowed into the Gulf since mid-July. Along the coast, little oil is being washed up. Fishing grounds are reopening rapidly. Tourists are coming back.” End of disaster.

In fact, there really was no disaster — just overblown media coverage. In another speech, Dudley said he felt “a great rush to judgment by a fair number of observers before the full facts could possibly be known, even from some in our industry. I watched graphic projections of oil swirling around the gulf, around Florida, across and around Bermuda to England — these appeared authoritative and inevitable.”

Dudley could make snarky comments about those graphic projections because he got lucky. While his broken well shot millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, streams of oil were being drawn into a long established, well documented waterway called the Loop Current. The Loop Current would drive the oil into the Florida Current which would push the oil into the Gulf Stream which would carry the oil, as Dudley said, “around Florida, across and around Bermuda to England.”

Then, suddenly, a lucky break. The northern tip of the Loop Current separated into a swirling eddy. This much is authoritative: until the eddy formed oil inevitably would have reached the Florida Keys, Southeast Florida and, if sea currents and winds allowed, Bermuda.

Dr. Villy Kourafalou at the University of Miami’s Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) is an expert on loop currents and eddies. Her lab produced computer models of water movement in the Gulf of Mexico during the Gulf oil disaster.

“If the spill actually had happened a little bit to the south or if the Loop Current had been a little bit to the north the oil would have come very quickly to the Keys,” she said.

But eddy Franklin saved the day when it formed and broke off the Loop Current.

Kourafalou explains, “Eddies carry things that they trap inside of them because things [e.g. particles of oil] recirculate so they cannot escape. The eddies are mechanisms of delivery as well. They can deliver good things like larvae and bad things like pollutants.”

Eddy Franklin couldn’t cross the Loop Current and, so, was kept away from the Keys and South Florida. Kourafalou’s graphics showed it happening in real time.

BP made it sound as if their clean up work somehow saved the day and that oil-caused ecological damage was blown way out of proportion when, in fact, natural phenomena intervened.

Also, Kourafalou’s models are most accurate at predicting water movement at the surface. Modeling water and particle movement at depth is “not as accurate as at the surface because at the surface we have a lot of satellite data that gives us a big coverage and we don’t have that information at depth,” she said.

But Kourafalou, like scientists at other university and government research centers, will do the best with the tools at hand, especially because Congress has cut funding for real-world measurement devices (radar, buoys, sensors) by more than half over the past 10 years. And oil response will continue to include a large measure of guesswork.

“The Gulf is notoriously empty in comparison to other areas in terms of observing systems in the Gulf. What you need is a system for the full Gulf and a system for the coastal areas, joining together with predictive models in real time. That is not there. I was very surprised,” Kourafalou added.

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