Concerns growing over spread of oil slick

May 23, 2010; 4:01 PM ET
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Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory, taken May 18, 2010. The area outlined in white across the northern Gulf of Mexico depicts the approximate extent of the oil slick on May 17, 2010. The Loop Current is depicted by the lighter pink color just south of the oil slick.

As efforts continue to stop the leak, oil is spreading farther southeast across the Gulf of Mexico via the Loop Current. Concerns remain about oil being drawn into the Gulf Stream and perhaps heading up the Atlantic Seaboard.

With hurricane season just around the corner, there has also been much speculation on how tropical systems will affect the oil and vice versa.

Oil is spreading as efforts continue to stop leak

The Loop Current, which is a warm ocean current in the Gulf of Mexico, can reach speeds of several miles per hour. It is carrying the oil much more swiftly than the waters over the north-central Gulf.

Satellite images taken over the past week have shown a significant part of the oil slick being drawn into this current and transported southward into the east-central Gulf of Mexico.

Concern is growing that large amounts of oil may reach the Florida Keys, the west coast of Florida, Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as the Loop Current carries the oil farther. Part of the slick could even be drawn into the Gulf Stream through the Florida Straits and travel northward up the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.

With increasing pressure to contain the oil leak at the Gulf floor, a new method is expected to be implemented by oil company BP early this upcoming week. According to BP officials, this new method will involve pumping a thick, viscous fluid into the site of the leak in an effort to stop the oil flow and seal it with cement.

Even if this method is successful, cleanup of the oil already caught in the Loop Current will be difficult, and it's spread into the Gulf Stream could still occur.

Weather impacts on the oil slick near the Louisiana coast

Closer to the central Gulf Coast, more of the slick has been reaching the shoreline of Louisiana and seeping into bays, estuaries and tidal marshes due to persistent southeast winds over the past couple of weeks.

Winds over the north-central and northeastern Gulf of Mexico are expected to stay fairly light but become variable over the next few days. In response to the light winds, seas will remain relatively calm with wave heights averaging 1 to 2 feet.

A break from persistent southeasterly winds, or onshore flow, may slow the rate of contaminants reaching the Louisiana shoreline this week.

Potential impacts of tropical systems on the oil slick

With hurricane season just around the corner, there has also been great concern about the impacts tropical systems or hurricanes could have on the oil slick. Vice-versa, there has also been speculation on what impacts the oil slick may have on hurricanes.

According to AccuWeather.com Expert Meteorologist Joe Bastardi, the hurricane season may have an impact on the oil, but the oil will not have an impact on the 2010 Atlantic Hurricane Season.

Vigorous wind and wave action in the vicinity of large storms, such as hurricanes or tropical storms, and small-scale coastal thunderstorms could cause any remaining oil slick to spread and impact areas previously unaffected.

Protective booms that have been deployed across the northern Gulf of Mexico could become ineffective in rigorous wave action that accompanies tropical systems.

Related to the Story:

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Content contributed by Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.

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