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Gulf Currents Extend The Oil Spill Threat To Florida

In my column regarding the spreading oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, I erroneously referred to the concerns  “climate” scientists  have expressed about the Gulf of Mexico currents that might carry the oil slick toward Florida. Villy Kourafalou, a research professor in the Division of  Meteorology and Physical Oceanography at the  University of Miami  Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science wrote to correct me. But Professor Kourafalou had much, much more to say about the Gulf disaster.


    I agree with the general spirit of your article (4/27) on the Gulf oil spill. It is, indeed, true that spills happening in the Gulf have great potential to influence the South Florida coastal areas. I am quite  amazed that the media have not mentioned by name the elephant in the room, namely the Gulf Stream. As an oceanographer, I feel we scientists have failed to share some of the quite relevant knowledge on the Gulf offshore drilling issue.

     However, I would like to bring to your attention a quite erroneous reference to climate scientists addressing the prediction of the oil spill. Climate prediction has NOTHING to do with the time scales we care about for this problem. You should refer to "ocean prediction" where  models run in real time, integrating available data and providing predictions of ocean circulation for the next few days (much like what  the weather service does for the atmosphere).

    We have a number of such tools available in the Gulf of Mexico, going from global to regional to coastal models, increasing in model resolution etc. Unfortunately, sustained operations for coastal models of high resolution are not in place, which is exactly what is needed for a detailed prediction required in this case. But the regional models can give a good framework  for the needed operations.

    Below I offer you a brief statement on the oceanographic background that is relevant to your story.

    Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico sounds irrelevant to the Gulf coasts. Floridians appear relieved that the new zones are far from the Florida beaches. However, the Gulf interior is well connected to shelf and coastal areas in the Gulf, including the Florida Keys reefs and beaches from Miami to West Palm, through the Loop Current/Florida. Current branches of the Gulf Stream.

    These currents change within days or weeks and large recirculating features (eddies) travel along them. The eddies act as carriers of various substances, moving them relatively quickly at great distances from the Gulf interior toward the shelf and coastal areas.

    The Florida Keys and the beaches from Miami to West Palm are particularly vulnerable, due to their proximity to the Florida. Current and eddies in the narrow Straits of Florida. The narrow shelf also plays a role, with shelf topography causing the eddies to break apart and deliver the substances, which can be good (like fish larvae and nutrients) or bad (like pollutants).

The debate on "offshore"  drilling in the Gulf should bring oceanography on board. Models of ocean prediction are already in place, assimilating data in real time and providing a wealth of information on these processes. Any exploration of marine resources needs scientific support to management in tandem with  sustained ability of rapid response to environmental hazards.


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