State College, Pa. — AccuWeather.com — Winds and waves will increase later in the weekend into early next week and may cause oil slick to shift. Concerns of hurricanes and drift remain for the weeks and months ahead.
Crews were lowering an over-sized funnel 5,000 feet down to the Gulf of Mexico floor Friday in an attempt to partially contain oil spewing from one of the damaged pipes. If successful, oil from that funnel will then be pumped to vessels on the surface. However, the operation has never been attempted at this depth before.
There already is a chemical dispersal system in place to help break up leaking oil before it reaches the surface. Planes are flying over the slick area delivering dispersal agents to combat the oil at the surface.
The long term effect of the slick and dispersal agents will have on the environment is uncertain.
Winds, Waves to Build Sunday
Seas over top of the source of the leaks were averaging a foot or less Friday morning and were expected to continue at this tranquil stage into Saturday night. During this same period, winds will remain light, but shifting from the south and southwest to the north and northeast by late Saturday.
During the period from Sunday into Monday, winds and correspondingly waves are forecast to increase. As winds swing around to the east and northeast and kick up to between 12 and 25 mph, waves will build to between 3 and 5 feet.
Wind and waves may cause some stability challenges for surface vessels.
Winds from this direction may also allow the massive oil slick or parts of it to shift westward along the southern Louisiana coast, while perhaps creating a little push away from the coasts of Alabama and the western part of the Florida Panhandle.
The slight chop expected later this weekend into next week may also work to break up parts of the oil slick, while lowering the efficiency and stability of boom systems
Meanwhile, approximately 5,000 feet down, there is no significant wave action. Even during a hurricane, the weather at the bottom remains relatively calm, aside from steady deep water currents.
A Grim Hurricane Forecast
AccuWeather.com hurricane expert Joe Bastardi remains concerned about the possibility of a June hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico this year.
Typically in June, hurricanes form in the western Caribbean and drift northward toward regions such as the Gulf of Mexico.
While the potential effects of a hurricane on the oil slick are indeed a wild card, there are some scenarios to ponder.
Depending on the strength and track of tropical storms, periodic rough seas could be a serious problem for containment operations and may halt the process until the storms pass.
Strong winds could steer part of the existing surface oil slick toward the northern Gulf Coast, or elsewhere. High winds from a hurricane could also cause some oil to become airborne in blowing spray, while a storm surge could carry contaminants inland.
On the other hand, to some extent rough seas and heavy rain tend to work toward breaking up an oil slick.
Unpredictable Long-term Drift
While the factor of winds, waves and storms makes for a tremendous forecast challenge as to where the oil slick will end up, ocean currents take the problem to a whole new level.
The Loop Current, located in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, is a concern, as it links to the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water northward along the Atlantic Seaboard.
In theory, if the oil slick were to get caught in the Loop Current, it could be transported to the Gulf Stream around Florida waters, then up part of the East Coast, potentially impacting wildlife and shoreline communities along the way.
On one hand, prevailing winds over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico this time of year are from the south. Since the slick is still over 100 miles away from the main circulation of the Loop Current in the southeastern Gulf, it would appear to not be an immediate concern.
However, small local spirals, known as eddies, often break off of the Loop Current and could cause the slick to wander and spread just about anywhere. The Loop Current itself often changes shape and location to some extent, adding more uncertainty to the mix.
Local currents along the shoreline may protect some communities and could bring the slick onshore in others. However, winds and tides can cause these local currents to shift by the hour.
One thing is for sure, the longer the leak goes unchecked, the greater the chance of the slick spreading to areas other than just the Louisiana shoreline.
By AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski