With oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig continuing to spew into the Gulf of Mexico researchers from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have produced an animated computer simulation that shows the potential spread of the oil over a period of 360 days from when the spill started. To calculate the particle dispersal the researchers used ocean flow data from simulations conducted with the high-resolution Ocean General Circulation Model for the Earth Simulator (OFES).

The animation shows the calculated surface particle concentrations for grid boxes measuring roughly 10km by 10km in size and assumes an estimated flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon of 50,000 barrels per day over a 150-day period. The simulation also assumes the spill is successfully capped by September 17, 2010.

The researchers say the computed surface concentrations may be overestimated as it doesn’t capture such real world effects as oil coagulation, formulation of tar balls or chemical and microbial degradation. However, they point out that the animation is not a detailed, specific prediction, but rather a scenario that could help guide research and mitigation efforts.

The animation shows the oil initially spreading in the Gulf of Mexico before entering the Loop Current and the narrow Florida Current, and finally the Gulf Stream.

“After one year, about 20% of the particles initially released at the Deepwater Horizon location have been transported through the Straits of Florida and into the open Atlantic,” explains Axel Timmermann from the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC).

The animation suggests that the coastlines near the Carolinas, Georgia, and Northern Florida could see the effects of the oil spill as early as October 2010 and that the main branch of the subtropical gyre (a ringlike system of ocean currents that rotate clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere) is likely to transport the oil film towards Europe, although strongly diluted.

The animation also shows that the narrow, deep Straits of Florida force the Florida Current into a narrow channel and create a tight bottleneck for the spreading of the oil into the Atlantic. This suggests the narrowest spot of the Florida Current could be an ideal place for a filtering system to mitigate the spreading of the oil film into the North Atlantic.

The video can be viewed below.

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