April 28, 2010

Tracking the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

4/28/10 |
Heather Hammers, Sea Grant Coastal Marine Agent, Pinellas County Extension

As many of us may or may not be aware, a terrible accident took place on April 20, 2010 off the coast of Louisiana where an oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded spewing out oil out of the sea floor. Eleven of the 126 workers aboard at the time are missing and presumed dead; the rest managed to escape. The cause of this explosion has not been determined. As of Monday afternoon, an area 48 miles long and 39 miles was covered by oil that leaked from the site of the rig.

How is this spill going to affect our coasts, water, and wildlife? How far will the oil spread and what areas are in the most danger? These questions are difficult to answer due to confounding factors such as wind and ocean currents that that are driving the oil. The major objective at this moment is shutting off the flow of oil. The owner of the rig has been unable to shut off the oil flowing from 5,000 feet below the surface. As a result, the slick is continuing to grow. On Sunday, robot submarines were deployed to shut off the valves responsible; we are waiting to hear if this strategy has been effective. Another option will be to mobilize two rigs to drill a relief well if needed—a process that could take months.

BP plans to collect leaking oil on the ocean bottom by lowering a large dome to capture the oil and then pump it through pipes and hoses into a vessel on the surface. Getting the equipment in place could take some time. Another confounding factor is that this system has only been deployed in shallow water but never deployed at 5,000 feet of water.

Where is this slick heading with regards to Florida? Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predicting that the slick will be pushed more toward the east, away from the Panhandle but pointed toward Florida’s peninsula. If interested in tracking the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, visit To learn more about how oil is actually captured, please refer to my FAQ on “Ask Extension”, "How to Collect Oil after an Oil Spill?”

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