Oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill is being picked up by a strong ocean current that will take it to Florida in days and possibly on up the Atlantic coast, experts warned Wednesday.
The Loop Current has started sweeping leaking crude from the giant slick off Louisiana towards Florida’s popular tourist beaches and fragile coral reefs, threatening a whole new dimension to the unfolding environmental disaster.
Scientists laid out a worst-case scenario in which the oceanic conveyor belt would see the first oil wash up in Florida in as little as six days, before carrying it up the US east coast and even into the Gulf Stream.
Large ribbons of crude and sludge have started washing ashore in Louisiana’s marshlands in recent days, even as BP says it has contained some 40 percent of the oil streaming from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
The European Space Agency said Wednesday that its satellites showed oil being dragged into the powerful clockwise-moving current that joins the Gulf Stream, the northern hemisphere’s most important ocean current system.
“We have visible proof that at least oil from the surface of the water has reached the current,” said Bertrand Chapron, a scientist at the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the main US agency monitoring the spill, had warned Tuesday that the leading edge of the slick was perilously close to the current and could be starting to enter it.
NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco said that by the time the oil reaches the Florida Strait it was likely to be “significantly weathered and degraded as well as diluted,” showing up in the form of emulsified streamers and tar balls rather than fresh crude.
Despite her words of caution there are fears that the already enormous economic and environmental impact of the spill could be magnified if it reaches the hugely popular tourist beaches and fragile coral reefs around the southern tip of Florida.
One of the state’s two US senators, Bill Nelson, described the prospect of oil hitting Florida and heading up the US east coast as his “worst nightmare.”
“While I always hope for the best,” Nelson said in a statement, “this is looking like really out-of-control bad.”
Scientists said the entry of the Gulf oil into the Loop Current made it harder to predict where the crude would surface next.
The spill, one of the worst environmental disasters ever to hit the United States, poses an ever more immediate threat to the environment in the Gulf and the businesses that rely on it, including its once-thriving fishing industry.
Officials on Tuesday closed a large swath of the Gulf of Mexico in the latest blow to the region’s economy, affecting some 45,000 square miles (120,000 square kilometers) — about one-fifth of the Gulf’s federal waters.
BP, meanwhile, continued its efforts to siphon up as much of the spewing oil as possible via a mile-long suction tube that it says is sucking up some 2,000 barrels of crude a day spouting from a fractured pipe.
BP estimates that some 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, of crude is spewing each day from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig, although independent experts warn the flow rate could be at 10 times as great.
There are also concerns that huge underwater plumes of crude could be starving the Gulf of oxygen and thus harming the marine environment far more than previously thought.
More than 150 dead sea turtles, 12 dead bottlenose dolphins and 35 oiled birds — 23 of them dead — have been recovered, government wildlife officials said Tuesday, without directly linking this to the spill.