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Ocean currents likely to carry oil along Atlantic coast…..well, maybe

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 Today the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) released finding from their computer model and announced that ocean currents are likely to carry oil along the Atlantic Coast. This statement, along with some fun looking video on YouTube seen below, has been carried in the news today in a number of places, including national broadcast news – NBC’s Ann Thompson’s piece tonight included the NCAR YouTube clip in the Evening News.  

But seemingly everyone is leaving out a key caveat that NCAR included, but didn’t emphasize, in their release: 

“The modeling study is analogous to taking a dye and releasing it into water, then watching its pathway.”  The NCAR article then added “The dye tracer used in the model has no actual physical resemblance to true oil. Unlike oil, the dye has the same density as the surrounding water, does not coagulate or form slicks, and is not subject to chemical breakdown by bacteria or other forces.” 

While it is impressive modeling that NCAR has produced, what the model may better portray is that nutrients and other particles that come down the Mississippi can be caught in the loop current and make their way half way up the eastern seaboard. A potentially more valid finding of the NCAR model is to be aware that what you put on the landscape and send down your drains in the middle of the country because there are models that show materials may make their way past the Florida Straits and even up to the Carolinas. 

But it doesn’t take an expert in fluid dynamics to tell that crude oil, and the unknown range of types of products that result from dispersants, weathering and biological degradation all are unlikely to act like a dye pack. 

It is good to use what science we have on hand to the extent it can help us plan for this oil spill moving to other areas, or for contemplating where future oil spills of crude or refined oil products might go, but let’s also make sure to pay close attention to the caveats in the models that are being touted in the news today. 

From NCAR’s website: “This animation shows one scenario of how oil released at the location of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico may move in the upper 65 feet of the ocean. This is not a forecast, but rather, it illustrates a likely dispersal pathway of the oil for roughly four months following the spill.” and “The animation is based on a computer model simulation, using a virtual dye.”

Problem being, a spill of crude oil isn’t a dye pack.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm. 


Written by Will Nuckols

June 3, 2010 at 7:17 pm

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