East Coast of Florida More Likely to See Oil

The NOAA reports that the east coast of Florida has a far greater chance of oil washing ashore than the southwest coast of Florida.

Major Findings and Implications
The details of the study are outlined below, but the major findings are represented in the figures that follow, and include:

  • The coastlines with the highest probability (81%–100%) for impact—from the Mississippi River Delta to the panhandle of Florida—are already receiving oil.
  • Along U.S. Gulf of Mexico shorelines, the oil is more likely to move east than west, with the south coast of Texas showing a relatively low probability (less than 1%) for impact.
  • Much of the west coast of Florida has a low probability (1%–20%) for impact, but the Florida Keys, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale areas have a greater probability (61%–80%) due to the potential influence of the Loop Current [leaves OR&R site].
  • A projected threat to the shoreline does not necessarily mean that oil will come ashore. It means that oil or streamers or tar balls are likely to be in the general vicinity (within 20 miles of the coast). Winds and currents will have to move the oil or tar balls onto the shore. Booms and other countermeasures would be used to mitigate the potential coastal contact once oil is in the area.
  • The longer it takes oil to travel, the more it will degrade, disperse, lose toxicity, and break into streamers and tar balls. For example, any oil that enters the Loop Current will take at least 8-12 days to reach the Florida Straits, but could take much longer. Over that time, the oil will degrade and disperse, and any shoreline impacts to Keys, southeast Florida or beyond would be in the form of scattered tar balls, not a large surface slick of oil.
  • As the Gulf Stream moves northeast and angles away from the continental US, there is an increasingly lower probability of shoreline impacts from eastern central Florida up the eastern seaboard. If oil does reach these areas, it will be in the form of tar balls or highly weathered streamers after traveling a thousand miles or more through the ocean.
  • Implications. The findings cover potential impacts based on a scenario that assumes a significant continuing spill. Some of these impacts may be weeks or months away or may not materialize. In light of these uncertainties and extended timeframes, NOAA will continue to work with the U.S. Coast Guard and other members of the response team to track the movement of oil, including monitoring the Loop Current, producing 72-hour projections of oil movement and updating these longer-term models, to inform states, communities, businesses, consumers, and others.

If the oil reaches Florida's East Coast:
Because South Florida is about 600 miles from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, any oil reaching South Florida will have traveled hundreds of miles from the wellhead. During its passage through the dynamic currents of the Gulf, the oil will have weathered and degraded. For example, oil now floating in the north-central Gulf is a mixture of recently-released oil and oil that has been weathered for up to two months when the Gulf leak
first began.

If oil were to reach South Florida, the freshest oil will have spent at least 10 days to 14 days on the water surface. It could arrive in Florida in the form of pancakes of brown oil, streamers of pudding-like emulsified oil, or very thin sheen. As oil on the water surface ages, winds and waves tear it into smaller and smaller pieces, and evaporation and dissolution of its lighter constituents makes it denser and more tar-like. Ultimately, floating oil becomes small tar-like balls, called tar balls.

If the oil reaches South Florida, responders in South Florida may see a mixture of forms of oil, however, they are most likely to see tar balls. The oceanographic processes that would transport oil also would broadly distribute it at sea, so it is not possible to predict just where the oil could go or when it could arrive. Depending on the age, these tar balls may be soft and gooey, denser and tar-like, or, if the oil has mixed with sand, easily crumbled.