Oil Predicted To Hit Florida's Atlantic Coast, Not Gulf

The federal government has issued its first long-term forecast for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It projects where the oil will go during the summer, based on Gulf currents over the past 15 years. The report finds oil is much more likely to wash ashore on Florida's Atlantic coast than it is on the state's Gulf coast south of Tampa.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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The federal government has issued its first long-term forecast for the movement of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The outlook through the summer suggests that Florida's Atlantic Coast is actually at greater risk than much of the state's Gulf Coast. But all that depends on a fickle phenomenon known as the loop current.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Ever since oil began spewing from the runaway well in late April, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been making short-term forecasts about where the oil would be a few days hence.

Now, for the first time, they have a projection that looks at the long-term movement of the oil. NOAA oceanographer Debbie Payton says it's like the difference between having a short term weather forecast and projecting the climate.

Ms. DEBBIE PAYTON (Oceanographer, NOAA): If you want to have a picnic next August, you look at climatology. If you want to have a picnic tomorrow, you look at the weather forecast.

HARRIS: To forecast the oil climate, if you will, Payton and her colleagues collected wind and current data over the past 15 years in the Gulf of Mexico. They added in an oil gusher appropriately placed off the coast of Louisiana and put all that information into a computer model. Think of it as the high-speed equivalent of the movie "Groundhog Day" starting over and over at the same place, but then left to unfold on its own.

Ms. PAYTON: You do a whole bunch of scenarios. And in this case we did 500 different scenarios. Only one of those scenarios will actually happen.

HARRIS: Only time will tell which one wins out. But some scenarios cropped up much more frequently than others. For example, in this model, oil ended up on the Florida coast south of Tampa less than one percent of the time. On the other hand, oil ended up on the Atlantic Coast of Florida more often than not. Payton says this kind of simulation is useful for people on the shore who need to plan ahead.

Ms. PAYTON: You know, if I live in Brownsville, what's my threat? And if you live in Brownsville, your threat is pretty much nil. But if you live in western Louisiana, perhaps down in the Keys, then you need to be vigilant and make sure that you're paying attention to what's going on.

HARRIS: People in east Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle don't need anyone to tell them that they're at the highest risk of getting oiled. The model is right on the money there.

But the model could be wrong in other ways. For example, currents in the Gulf this year are atypical in some important ways. In particular, a Gulf current called the loop current, which normally pushes water out of the Gulf and up the Atlantic seaboard doesn't seem to be doing that right now. So the statistically likely scenario of oil in the Keys and into the Atlantic is less of a worry, at least for now.

Ms. PAYTON: The scenario that's playing out right now, that's not happening.

HARRIS: The other important wildcard here is what happens when a tropical storm or a hurricane blows through. Again, this year is far from typical. In fact, forecasters say it could be a record-breaking year for tropical cyclones in the Gulf.

At a meeting on Capitol Hill earlier this week, oceanographer Rick Luettich from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill said these storms will change the flow of oil in the Gulf. They set up huge counterclockwise wind patterns.

Professor RICK LUETTICH (Oceanography, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill): As you make that counterclockwise rotation around the Gulf, you push things to the western Louisiana, you push things to Texas, areas that haven't seen them, but you also push them up against the Mississippi Delta.

HARRIS: Which could mean pushing oil into some marshes that have so far been relatively unscathed. What actually happens to the oil will ultimately depend on the short-term weather patterns, not the climate. So Debbie Payton at NOAA says keep watching those weather forecasts.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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