The risk of oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout reaching the Florida Keys and South Florida anytime soon is now so remote that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has suspended its trajectory maps for the area, effectively downgrading the region to low risk.
“It’s kind of like being taken out of the cone of uncertainty for a hurricane,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Herring of Sector Key West. “We’re temporarily out, but things could change.”
On Monday, the nearest documented oil from the massive spill was about 385 miles from Key West, according to the Florida Peninsula Command Post in Miami.
And thanks in part to changes in currents, the oil still spewing from the well site does not have a clear path to the Keys, said Billy Causey, the southeast regional director of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program.
The documented oil from the spill is about 100 miles from the northern part of the massive current dubbed Eddy Franklin, after Ben Franklin, which travels in a circular clockwise motion.
In May, Franklin pinched off from the loop current, which travels through the Florida Straits south of the Dry Tortugas, south of the rest of the Florida Keys and then veers north up the Atlantic Coast when it becomes the Gulf Stream.
In fact, conditions in the Gulf change constantly, said Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida who specializes in Gulf of Mexico monitoring and has been supplying modeling data on the spill to NOAA.
In the last few days, for instance, he said there were signs that the huge eddy could be reconnecting. And two months ago, when oceanographers were warning that the slick was slipping into the loop, no one expected the loop to shed the eddy that has since become a protective barrier to oil moving south.
“It’s like predicting weather,” he said. “There are subtleties to the loop current that are not well understood and difficult to predict.”
The loop current isn’t the only vehicle that could propel oil down the coast. In recent days, westerly wind patterns have pushed the leading edge of the slick and tar balls east across Panhandle waters, he said.
The more oil pushed into the shallower waters off the continental shelf, the more that is likely to stay closer to shore and potentially affect Florida’s west coast as far south as the Keys.
There’s also the possibility that seasonal upwelling of deep cold water from the Gulf could push some of those still poorly understood underwater plumes toward the continental shelf.
While NOAA has suspended its offshore trajectory map for the spill, Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, wrote in an e-mail to the area response committee that monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico will continue by air surveillance, vessel observations and satellite analysis.
So far, the extensive monitoring over the past few weeks has found no “recoverable” oil from the blowout in the loop current or the eddy.
“There have been a lot of false positives that have been reported,” NOAA’s James Jeansonne, who for weeks has been searching for oil from a Coast Guard’s C-130, said from 1,500 feet above the Gulf of Mexico.
The group has checked out several reports of possible oil, as well as anomalies that were picked up by satellite imaging. Jeansonne said cloud cover, sargassum patches and natural sheens are often misidentified as oil slicks.
He also said the Gulf is filled with oil sheens and tar balls from natural oil seeps and bunker fuels coming off ships. About 200 tar balls have been found on shorelines throughout the Keys, but none have proven to come from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
“There is a lot of anxiety because people care a lot about the Keys and its resources,” Jeansonne said. “We want people to understand what is really going on.”
Causey said he is concerned about people in the Keys initiating their own protection from oil they feel is on its way.
“We’ve already heard of people doing experiments with their own devices,” Causey said. “One man in Marathon put together an oil boom in his canal and poured a can of oil into it to see if it worked.”
Jeansonne said that with no imminent threat to the Keys, no protective measures other than beach cleanups should be taken.
“It’s like going out to war and shooting guns before the enemy is there,” he said.
Gary Davis, a retired research scientist with the National Parks Service, also said people in the Keys should be patient.
“It’s not going to hit like a tidal wave or tsunami,” he said. “It’s slow moving. And should oil arrive, it’s very unlikely it will look like anything you see on the evening news in Louisiana. It’s likely to be scattered tar balls.”