As efforts continue to contain the oil spill in the Gulf, experts in the Northeast have mixed opinions on whether currents could carry oil up the East Coast to Long Island.
Much depends on whether the oil slick gets sucked into a powerful current that connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Gulf Stream. Known as the Loop Current, it sends water through the eastern Gulf and out through the strait between the southern tip of Florida and Cuba. From there the current joins the Gulf Stream, which zips water up the East Coast to Cape Hatteras, N.C., and across the Atlantic to Northern Europe.
Finally, eddies that break off from the Gulf Stream are known to reach the Northeast Atlantic coast.
"If enough oil gets into the Loop Current, some spots might be affected, but I think the effect will be minimal," said Kamazima Lwiza, an associate professor of physical oceanography at Stony Brook University's school of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. "Most likely we are going to end up with some tar balls, and maybe a little bit of oil . . . it all depends on what happens down there in the Gulf."
But Malcolm Spaulding, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, called such forecasts "speculative."
Spaulding develops computer models used to predict how oil spills move through the water. He said that no previous oil spills in the Gulf had reached the Loop Current. He added that the slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill was still "well north" of that area.
Even if their paths did cross, he said the oil would likely move up the Southeast Coast and then move offshore around North Carolina.
"The chances of Long Island getting impacted, it seems to me, would be almost none," Spaulding said. While eddies do move off the Gulf Stream and travel to the Northeast, he said offshore winds would likely minimize any local impact from the spill.
If the oil did appear in local waters, Long Island and other shoreline communities would have plenty of time to prepare. "They monitor the Loop Current on a daily basis," Spaulding said. "If there was any possibility of that, you'd know about it very quickly."