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NOAA and researchers from the University of Florida report that much of the west coast of Florida will be protected from any major impact due to the loop current. NOAA reports that the closest the oil has been during the continuing ordeal is over 150 miles from the Tampa Bay area and it's beaches.

T = Tampa Bay Area   K= Key West    M= Miami

1. The loop current begins in the gap between Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Each second, millions of gallons of warm water shoot from the Caribbean Sea through the gap and into the Gulf of Mexico.

2. Underwater features called shelves, along with the Earth's rotation, help turn the current east toward the Florida peninsula

Normally, if nothing alters the loop current flow, the oil, which has drifted down into the current, would be pulled south along the current's edge and eventually find its way to the Florida Keys and on into the Gulf Stream.

Periodically an eddy forms (known as the Tortuga Eddy) to the southeast and pushes into loop current and will begin to pinch off the top of the current. As the top of the current separates, eventually the bottom reroutes itself, going more directly from the Yucatan through the Florida Straits. The Tortugas Eddy will eventually disappear, allowing the loop current once again to travel north into the central gulf.

 loop current west coast florida

Many experts believe that the loop current which never comes closer than about 100 miles from the majority of Florida's west coast, will funnel the oil south of the Keys. State officials are more concerned about the potential threat to south and east Florida and not the west coast.

JULY 2 - Government forecasters say there's up to an 80 percent chance that the massive oil spill will reach the waters off Miami by the middle of August, caught in the loop current around Florida and then pushed northward up the state's east coast at a rate of 100 miles per day. The oil would bypass Florida's west coast, but it would thread through the delicate environment of the Florida Keys before moving toward Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. Most forecasts anticipate that Louisiana will continue to be besieged by the oil, though Texas will be spared.

June 15 - The University of Miami is announcing that a research cruise sponsored by the National Science Foundation has discovered that a large oil plume originating from the Deepwater Horizon site is heading for the Dry Tortugas. These islands, preserved as part of a US national park, reside just to the west of the Florida Keys. Should the oil make it that far, it will almost certainly find its way into the Atlantic Ocean.

The flow of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon has been difficult to track, since the source is on the sea floor, while oil's buoyancy will cause it to move towards the surface. On its way there, it will encounter different currents at various depths. The currents in the Gulf are dominated by what's called the Loop Current, which enters the Gulf between Cuba and the Yucatan. What happens next can vary considerably.

Depending on a variety of factors, the Loop can extend well north in a large clockwise sweep through the Gulf before exiting into the Atlantic near the Florida Keys. At other points, this loop pinches off into an independent vortex as the main current heads directly for the Atlantic. The precise configuration of these currents will strongly influence the flow of oil as it's released from the well, and thus help control where the largest environmental impacts will be.

The University of Florida announced some success in tracking the oil as it moves away from the source. The school's modeling group made predictions about the spill's progress that were used to direct a research vessel on a cruise through the Gulf. That vessel encountered a large plume of oil that, based on the prevailing currents, is moving towards the Dry Tortugas. Should it get that far, the oil will almost certainly spread through the Keys and up the east coast of Florida, carried that way by the Florida current. Tracking the spread of the oil is only part of the challenge, as we'll ultimately need to know how much oil has been released in order to prepare mitigation and recovery efforts. Right now, we seem to be nowhere close to having a grip on that.

The clockwise flow that extends northward into the Gulf of Mexico and joins the Yucatan Current and the Florida Current is known as the Loop Current

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