Can Oil from the Gulf Reach Delaware’s Shores?

by Dave on May 28, 2010

University of Delaware professor Matt Oliver tracks currents in the Gulf of Mexico in real time.

The nation awoke on April 20, 2010 to a catastrophe of enormous proportions as the Deepwater Horizon oil platform malfunctioned, causing oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico in water nearly one-mile deep.

In the days following, as officials tried to determine the rate in which the oil was spilling into the sea, a disturbing question arose among scientists and media locally: Could the oil reach the Gulf Stream, and eventually find its way to our shores?

“There’s not a zero chance. There are a lot of unknowns,” says Professor Matthew J. Oliver at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean & Environment. “There are a lot of impediments in the way for oil to reach our shores. A lot of variables have to ‘work out’ along the way.”

Oliver is the caretaker of the University’s Global Visualization Lab, a sophisticated online mapping system projected onto nine flat-screen televisions merged together into one monitor. Using the Lab, Oliver attempted to explain the situation in the Gulf using real-time data.

The situation in the Gulf is not threatening in its current state, but is likely to change.

“What’s happened in the last couple of days is that the loop current [which pulls water toward the Gulf Stream] has become a giant eddy,“ says Oliver. “It could reconnect or it could drift westward. The usual case would be for it to reconnect.”

If the eddy reconnects with the Gulf Stream, the loop current could pull subsurface oil around the tip of Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard. That process could take a matter of days. Due to the likelihood of the oil remaining below the surface, it’s not possible to rule out the possibility that oil is already in the Gulf Stream or even off our coast.

However, there are physical barriers in the Mid-Atlantic that would help prevent oil from reaching the shoreline. The Continental Shelf, in combination with the Gulf Stream would tend to push the oil off the coast and into some mini-eddies offshore. Also as oil would travel up the Gulf Stream, subsurface microbes would partially break down the oil.

Due to Oliver’s expertise and the capabilities of the Global Visualization Lab, Oliver & the University were tapped in recent days by the federal government to aid in the collection and dissemination of real-time data concerning the situation in the Gulf. The University joined forces with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners like Rutgers University and the University of South Florida to create The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Portal to facilitate the sharing of data.

“The NOAA folks said ‘Can you help us?” said Oliver. “We spent the weekend focusing on different parts of the problem. My part was dealing with sea surface temperatures – Can I get reliable imagery to the Web, to the boats, to the people who need it?”

Their web site (http://rucool.marine.rutgers.edu/deepwater/) includes a blog and links to the many maps that Oliver produces and relies on in his work.

So in the end, Oliver believes that it is unlikely that we will see oil reach our shores at the Delaware Beaches. “But it’s impossible to know until we know how much oil there is, and when it stops. If it was an infinite supply of oil, it would end up here. As we get better subsurface information, we’ll know more.”

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