A team of University of Hawaii researchers has produced a long-range computer simulation with new details showing where the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could spread.
The team hopes the work will help with cleaning up the pollution.
UH oceanographer Axel Timmermann created the two-minute animation on a UH computer over two weeks. Using an ocean-current model developed on a supercomputer in Japan, he developed the simulation with help from graduate assistant Fabian Schloesser and assistant researcher Oliver Elison Timm, all with the UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.
Their animation shows oil passing through the narrow channel between the tip of the Florida peninsula and the Bahamas before spreading into the Atlantic in August, then washing ashore on southeastern beaches in October or November.
Timmermann said that according to the simulation, the channel between Florida and Grand Bahama Island would be the ideal place to remove oil before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean.
They sent their work to BP about two weeks ago, but haven’t heard back yet.
Timmermann, a professor of oceanography, said he wanted to create the long-term prediction because the only other long-term prediction he knows of stopped before October, when the winds grow stronger.
A four-month simulation by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado also showed oil passing through the channel below Florida, but a month earlier than the UH simulation.
Since the Colorado center’s study ends in August, it doesn’t show the effect of the seasonal northeasterly winds. In the UH simulation, those winds push the oil onto the eastern coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas and away from Florida’s western coast, Timmermann said.
His team ran eight projections, each covering a year, to show where the oil might end up, depending on weather conditions. The recurring patterns show oil passing through the channel below Florida, with winds pushing the crude onto the eastern coastline.
In the UH simulation, 8 million particles — representing the oil — are released into the ocean at the site of the oil rig and mix with the ocean currents on the surface.
The simulation, however, does not account for oil coagulation, tar balls and chemical and microbial degradation — which may mean less oil actually reaching the Atlantic.
Synte Peacock, a National Center for Atmospheric Research oceanographer who has seen Timmermann’s simulation, said she also ran simulations out to a year and found her results to be similar.
While the UH simulation uses particles, the center’s model simulates a dye in the water, but "the results are extremely similar," Peacock said in an e-mail.
Graduate assistant Schloesser said the oil that spreads into the Atlantic will have the severest impact on the coast. If the oil slick reaches Europe, it will be highly diluted, eaten by microbes, and likely won’t have an impact, he said.