Clouds, unstable Loop Current making oil spill prediction difficult

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 8:48 PM GMT on May 18, 2010

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It's cloudy over the Gulf of Mexico today, so it is difficult to tell how far into the Loop Current the Deepwater Horizon oil has penetrated using visible satellite imagery. Satellite imagery yesterday from NASA's MODIS instrument confirmed that a tongue of oil moved southeast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and entered the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current. However, Synthetic Aperture Radar imagery from the European Envisat satellite posted at ROFFS Ocean Forecasting Service shows that while some of the tongue of oil that entered the Loop Current appears to be circulating southwards towards the Florida Keys, perhaps 80% of the oil in this tongue is caught in a counter-clockwise circulating eddy along the north side of the Loop Current. This oil may eventually circulate around and enter the Loop Current, but not for at least three days.


Figure 1. Oil spill forecast for this Thursday night as simulated by the 6pm EDT Monday May 17 runs of the Navy Gulf of Mexico HYCOM nowcast/forecast system and the Global HYCOM + NCODA Analysis from the HYCOM Consortium. See the University of South Florida Ocean Circulation Group website for more information. There are considerable differences between the two models, due in part to the fact that they have much different depictions of the sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and ocean currents at the beginning of their runs. The warm Loop Current is visible as the red colors of the SST field that form a heart-shaped area in the Gulf.

How long will it be until oil reaches the Keys?
Once oil gets into the Loop Current, the 1 - 2 mph speed of the current should allow the oil to travel the 500 miles to the Florida Keys in 5 - 10 days. Portions of the Loop Current flow at speed up to 4 mph, so the fastest transport could be 4 - 5 days.

How much oil has made it into the Loop Current?
According to the latest trajectory forecasts from NOAA, the tongue of oil flowing southwards has, at most, "light" concentrations. The oil will grow more dilute as it travels the 500 miles to the Florida Keys, and most of the oil appears to be caught in a smaller counter-clockwise rotating eddy on the north side of the Loop Current. My present expectation is that the oil entering the Loop Current this week will cause only minor problems in the Keys next week. However, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding how much oil will get to the Keys, and we cannot rule out the possibility of an ecological disaster in the fragile Keys ecosystem.

How is the Loop Current changing?
The Loop Current has been highly chaotic and unstable over the past week, making it difficult to predict how the ocean currents near the spill will behave. According to ROFFS Ocean Fishing Service, which has done a tremendous job tracking the spill, the Loop Current surged 7 - 10 miles northward Sunday and Monday. The Loop Current has gotten more contorted since Friday, and may be ready to cut off into a clockwise-rotating Loop Current Eddy. This process occurs every 6 - 11 months, with the clockwise-rotating ring of water slowly drifting west-southwest towards Texas. The last eddy broke off ten months ago, so the Loop Current is due to shed another eddy in the next few months. The latest 1-month forecast from the U.S. Navy does not predict an eddy forming, but these forecasts are not very reliable. If a Loop Current Eddy does break off, oil getting entrained into it might orbit the center of the Gulf of Mexico for many months inside the eddy. However, this eddy will probably reattach and detach from the main Loop Current flow for at least a month following when it breaks off, so oil will continue to flow through the Keys during this initial month.

When will the flow of oil into the Loop Current shut off?
Winds over the oil spill location are expected to be light and onshore at 5 - 10 knots through Saturday. This means that the chaotic contortions of the Loop Current will primarily control how much oil gets into it, making it difficult to predict when the flow will shut off. The long range (and thus unreliable) forecast for next week from the GFS model calls for a continuation of light winds over the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Thus, the flow of oil into the Loop Current could occur intermittently for several weeks.

Who besides the Keys are at risk next week from the Loop Current oil?
As I discussed in an earlier post, the coast of Southwest Florida from Tampa Bay to the Everglades is a "Forbidden Zone" for surface-based transport of ocean water to the coast, and is probably not at risk from this week's Loop Current oil. The northwest coast of Cuba east of Havana and the coast of Southeast Florida from the Keys to West Palm Beach are at the most risk. The western shores of the western-most Bahama Islands and the U.S. coast north of West Palm Beach northwards to Cape Hatteras are at slight risk. It would likely take ocean eddies 2 - 9 weeks to transport the oil to these locations, and the oil would probably be so dilute that ecosystem damage would probably be minor, at most. At this point, I see no reason for cancellation of vacation plans to any of the beach areas that may potentially be affected by the oil.

What is happening to the plumes of oil at depth?
Two research missions over the past week have detected substantial plumes of oil at depth, moving to the southwest. The deepest of the these plumes, near the site of the blowout at 5,000 feet depth, is in a region of slow ocean currents and has not moved much. At depths closer to the surface, the currents get stronger, and oil within a few hundred feet of the surface--if there is any--could potentially have been dragged into the Loop Current. At this point, we don't have a very good picture of how much oil is at depth and where it might be headed.

Oil spill resources
My post on the Southwest Florida "Forbidden Zone" where surface oil will rarely go
My post on what oil might do to a hurricane
NOAA trajectory forecasts
Deepwater Horizon Unified Command web site
Oil Spill Academic Task Force
University of South Florida Ocean Circulation Group oil spill forecasts
ROFFS Deepwater Horizon page
Surface current forecasts from NOAA's HYCOM model
HYCOM ocean current forecasts from LSU

The tropics
For those of you interested in a detailed look at the early season tropical weather outlook, consult the excellent wunderblogs of StormW and Weather456, who are now featured bloggers for the coming hurricane season. We have some models predicting a possible subtropical storm off the U.S. East coast next week, but this does not appear to be a significant concern for land areas at this time. More concerning is the possibility that an area of disturbed weather will develop across the Western Caribbean late next week. While wind shear will likely keep anything in the Western Caribbean from developing, several models are predicting that this disturbance may bring major flooding rains to earthquake-ravaged Haiti late next week.

I'll be back with a new post Wednesday afternoon.

Jeff Masters

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Quoting pottery:

Can you find the SAL map for this day 2009?


EDIT: Was wrong about the archives for the CIMSS maps....posts above show the 2009 image.

There is no archive for those maps, but from what I can tell it wasn't too bad at this particular time last year. Looks like there may have been a minor outbreak in the central-eastern Atlantic. I wouldn't know exactly how much SAL this map shows....there are others here with better sites for aerosols than I have.

Global MODIS Aerosol Optical Depth May 9-16th, 2009:



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516. xcool


2009 here
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Quoting MyrtleCanes:


why dont the put a vacuum tube over the broken pipe instead of in it?

Probably because they would need to create a vacuum, and trying to do that while preventing sea water only from being sucked in instead of the contents of the pipe would be difficult.
Good question, I had not thought about it before. Just my opinion there.
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452
Quoting pottery:

Can you find the SAL map for this day 2009?


I know this wasnt directed at me, but I was already looking through the archives.

May 18th 2009
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Everything is always shifted to the right and Im always having to adjust then I overdue it. Does anyone know how I can go about keeping everything centered? I cant get a good fix on any satellite pictures like this.
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Quoting Hurricanes101:


CMC didnt spit out anywhere near as many ghost storms as it used to. There were times in 2007 and 2008 where it would have 4 or 5 storms at once. The CMC was no worse than any other model last season

I agree.
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511. viman
Quoting NttyGrtty:
OK,now I'm really out. Pottery, wedding last weekend went great, thank's for the blast comment on Friday. Patrick, learn Coast Guard enlisted rank terms...even retired, they retain the honor. Atmo, yep, now confirmed. Thanks all for the comments, good luck all to your predictions. manana...(sorry, don't have the squiggle on this computer...again, sorry to those who don't know what a squiggle is)


lol
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Quoting NttyGrtty:
OK,now I'm really out. Pottery, wedding last weekend went great, thank's for the blast comment on Friday. Patrick, learn Coast Guard enlisted rank terms...even retired, they retain the honor. Atmo, yep, now confirmed. Thanks all for the comments, good luck all to your predictions. manana...(sorry, don't have the squiggle on this computer...again, sorry to those who don't know what a squiggle is)

G'Nite

And I'll take my leave, as well. Take care, all.
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Good Night everyone!
Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194
Quoting HaboobsRsweet:

When was the upgrade? Last year it was just as bad. It made storms all the time and it was a quiet year.


CMC didnt spit out anywhere near as many ghost storms as it used to. There were times in 2007 and 2008 where it would have 4 or 5 storms at once. The CMC was no worse than any other model last season
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Quoting pottery:

Can you find the SAL map for this day 2009?
Nope, I don't know if anyone else can.
Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194
looks like two tornados - on radial
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OK,now I'm really out. Pottery, wedding last weekend went great, thank's for the blast comment on Friday. Patrick, learn Coast Guard enlisted rank terms...even retired, they retain the honor. Atmo, yep, now confirmed. Thanks all for the comments, good luck all to your predictions. manana...(sorry, don't have the squiggle on this computer...again, sorry to those who don't know what a squiggle is)
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4 forecast models are showing some kind of concensus of development in the SW Caribbean, it has been discussed all night

Just because its May, doesn't mean it can't happen
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Quoting HaboobsRsweet:

When was the upgrade? Last year it was just as bad. It made storms all the time and it was a quiet year.
gfs was upgraded as well with most models upgrading as well lets keep with the program
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Quoting pottery:

I think that the idea is, they will increase the vacuum on the inserted tube over the next few days, to suck harder. i.e lift more oil from the leak. But that was my understanding....


why dont they put a vacuum tube over the broken pipe instead of in it?
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Quoting HaboobsRsweet:

When was the upgrade? Last year it was just as bad. It made storms all the time and it was a quiet year.
I have no idea.
Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194
Quoting MiamiHurricanes09:
SAL very strong, not that it matters at this time in the season but it is interesting to see.


Can you find the SAL map for this day 2009?
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24452


Local leaders concerned after oil sheen begins hitting Pass a Loutre

It is the arrival of the heavy oil at the coast that officials have dreaded.
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Quoting Hurricanes101:


That was before the upgrade, now the CMC is much more reliable than it was before

When was the upgrade? Last year it was just as bad. It made storms all the time and it was a quiet year.
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3.25" hail called out ! Wow.....

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Quoting HaboobsRsweet:


Because it has a history of generating storms out of nothing at all and also increasing the intensity way over what real systems turn out to be. Tough model to trust and gauge but should not be totally overlooked.
CMC really has improved lately, I understand what you're saying but shouldn't be ruled out.
Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194
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Quoting HaboobsRsweet:


Because it has a history of generating storms out of nothing at all and also increasing the intensity way over what real systems turn out to be. Tough model to trust and gauge but should not be totally overlooked.


That was before the upgrade, now the CMC is much more reliable than it was before
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Quoting MiamiHurricanes09:
SAL very strong, not that it matters at this time in the season but it is interesting to see.



Well thats due to higher than average shear over Africa throwing the SAL off.


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Quoting MiamiHurricanes09:
And why is that???


CMC= Constantly Making Cyclones... learned that back in '07 from someone on here
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Quoting MiamiHurricanes09:
And why is that???


Because it has a history of generating storms out of nothing at all and also increasing the intensity way over what real systems turn out to be. Tough model to trust and gauge but should not be totally overlooked.
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Tornado Reports (CSV) (Raw Tornado CSV)

Time Location County

State Lat Lon Comments

2136 1 E NATURAL FORT REST A WELD CO 4096 10490 (BOU)
2138 2 E ROCKPORT WELD CO 4090 10476 (BOU)
2141 3 S CHEYENNE LARAMIE WY 4110 10479 SPOTTER AT END OF CHRISTIAN ROAD LOOKING SOUTHWEST. DEBRIS SPOTTED. (CYS)
2145 18 W CARPENTER LARAMIE WY 4103 10469 SPOTTER LOOKING WEST. SAW TORNADO AS IT CROSSED THE COLORADO STATE LINE. HIS LOCATION IS SPEER WYOMING. HAD NICKEL SIZED HAIL COVERING THE GROUND AT HIS LOCATION (CYS)
2236 5 NNW CHANNING HARTLEY TX 3575 10237 OFF DUTY NWS EMPLOYEE SAW A BRIEF TORNADO TOUCHDOWN NEAR CHANNING. (AMA)
2244 7 SSE HARTLEY HARTLEY TX 3579 10235 (AMA)
2323 7 W PLATTEVILLE WELD CO 4022 10495 (BOU)
2328 DUMAS MOORE TX 3586 10197 (AMA)
2328 9 W EVANS WELD CO 4038 10487 (BOU)
2342 2 E DUMAS MOORE TX 3586 10193 (AMA)
2348 2 S BUSHNELL KIMBALL NE 4120 10389 TORNADO TOUCHED DOWN. NO REPORT OF DAMAGE. (CYS)
0006 8 W PINE BLUFFS LARAMIE WY 4118 10422 TORNADO ON GROUND NEAR CR 212 (CYS)
0015 5 W PINE BLUFFS LARAMIE WY 4118 10416 TORNADO TOUCHED DOWN. NO REPORTS OF DAMAGE. (CYS)
0021 5 W PINE BLUFFS LARAMIE WY 4118 10416 (CYS)
0044 7 NW STINNETT HUTCHINSON TX 3589 10153 (AMA)
0044 15 NW GUYMON TEXAS OK 3684 10167 2 BRIEF TOUCHDOWNS. (AMA)
0055 BURNS LARAMIE WY 4119 10436 ROOF DAMAGE. (CYS)
0121 6 ENE EADS KIOWA CO 3851 10268 BRIEF TOUCHDOWN. (PUB)

Tomorrow will be much worse!!!!!!
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SAL very strong, not that it matters at this time in the season but it is interesting to see.

Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194
Quoting winter123:


CMC cannot be taken seriously ever for tropical systems.
And why is that???
Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194
Quoting MiamiHurricanes09:
18z 144 hour CMC. The CMC is going a little crazy on the Bahamas hybrid system.



CMC cannot be taken seriously ever for tropical systems.
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Quoting Unfriendly:
yea, wunderground is saying definate cyclonic signature... purple triangles are never good

This sell in Hutchinson Co, TX is MEAN, a very, very strong supercell!!!!
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280 atmoaggie "Think-Tank Says Trained Chimp Can Predict Hurricanes Better Than NOAA..."

Chimps do not face the severe political/funding pressure of NOAA forecasters to minimize the numbers and magnitudes of hurricanes lest constituents' businesses be deprived of the cash spent by tourists who decide to go elsewhere.
Got a choice:
Give stupid pre-season estimates and keep your job so that you can give excellent advice during the season; or
Give good pre-season estimates and be fired by a politically-appointed administrator, only to be replaced by a sycophantic idiot whose advice will kill people, lots of people.
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Quoting Patrap:
t Severe Weather

Tornado Warning

Statement as of 8:44 PM CDT on May 18, 2010

The National Weather Service in Amarillo has issued a

* Tornado Warning for...
Dallam County in the Panhandle of Texas.
West central Sherman County in the Panhandle of Texas.


I just caught 79 dBz echo at 8,300 ft AGL in that cell.
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Quoting StormChaser81:
I have a really important oil update for you guys in a little bit.

After these messages and a word from our sponsor?
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It's getting chilly now...

Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194
yea, wunderground is saying definate cyclonic signature... purple triangles are never good
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Quoting Patrap:
Severe Weather

Tornado Warning

Statement as of 8:44 PM CDT on May 18, 2010

The National Weather Service in Amarillo has issued a

* Tornado Warning for...
Dallam County in the Panhandle of Texas.
West central Sherman County in the Panhandle of Texas.

* Until 945 PM CDT

* at 844 PM CDT... National Weather Service meteorologists have
detected a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado. The
most dangerous part of this storm was located near Ware... or about
15 miles northwest of Dalhart... moving east at 25 mph.

* Some locations near the path of this storm include Ware and Conlen.

Precautionary/preparedness actions...

A tornado may form at any time... take cover now! Abandon Mobile homes
and vehicles for more substantial shelter. Avoid windows.

To report severe weather... please call the National Weather Service
at 8 0 6 3 3 5 1 1 2 1.


Lat... Lon 3648 10229 3624 10200 3610 10272 3625 10284
time... Mot... loc 0144z 254deg 21kt 3622 10268


Clk



This super-cell is cycling (every 15 minutes meso-cyclone gets enveloped by the rain, then a new updraft sets up). TWC said this produced a large wedge tornado, that became rain-wrapped).

Tomorrow is going to be WILD in the western and central OK and far N TX.
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I have a really important oil update for you guys in a little bit.
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Quoting weathers4me:
Why do we not hear about anything being reported about the oil smell that is coming off the west coast of FL near St pete and Bradenton? I have not seen this on the news either.


Because it is just a smell...have had the same smell for over a week in MS. Not new news. It is harmless, just a faint odor. You wont even notice it in a day or two.
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Quoting pottery:

Greetings Orca.
Please avoid quoting that person if you can. Just for me. Thanks.
Never a personal word to me prior to this? How's your rain?
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Quoting MiamiHurricanes09:
18z 144 hour CMC. The CMC is going a little crazy on the Bahamas hybrid system.



Quite interesting split-jet it forms there, opening up a pocket of lower shear over the storm. The other thing is it is still slicing the subtropical jet right through the Caribbean on Day 6, giving no room for tropical development down there.
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Ah my bad...didnt go far enough out. I tend not to look past 96 hours. Maybe it will happen but it looks like it will die before it even gets to Cuba. Obivously it is pretty far out still so that track could be way out to lunch. I just dont trust much that far out. Doesnt mean it is wrong and wont happen, just dont trust it.
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Why do we not hear about anything being reported about the oil smell that is coming off the west coast of FL near St pete and Bradenton? I have not seen this on the news either.
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xtreme right moving TVS,,still running at 090 degrees true,..with cyclonic vortex improving all the time.

Nasty ,nasty cell. Best not to be in this ones path,

Take immediate action if your in the storms path.

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18z 144 hour CMC. The CMC is going a little crazy on the Bahamas hybrid system.

Member Since: September 2, 2009 Posts: 130 Comments: 21194

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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