The oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from that massive BP spill could be along the Atlantic coast and into the open ocean within weeks, according to computer simulations carried out by the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research.
"I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?’" said scientist Synte Peacock in a statement released by the centre.
"Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood."
The simulations suggest that when the oil that's closest to the surface gets caught up in the Gulf of Mexico's powerful Loop Current, it will likely reach Florida's Atlantic coast by early summer.
After that, it could hitch a ride on the Gulf Stream and move up to 160 kilometres a day, heading as far north as Cape Hatteras, N.C.
From there, it would only be a matter of days until it turned east and headed into open sea.
Accurate prediction 'impossible'
"Whether the oil will be a thin film on the surface or mostly subsurface due to mixing in the uppermost region of the ocean is not known," the centre said.
The scientists cautioned that their simulations are not forecasts because it's impossible to accurately predict exactly where the oil will travel in the next few weeks and months.
"Instead, the simulations provide an envelope of possible scenarios for the oil dispersal," the centre said.
To arrive at its conclusions, scientists used a sophisticated computer model to simulate how a liquid released at the spill site would disperse. They tracked the rate of dispersal at five depths, beginning at the top 20 metres of water and going successively deeper, with the lowest depth just above the sea bed.
"The modelling study is analogous to taking a dye and releasing it into water, then watching its pathway," Peacock said.
The centre tested six different model simulations. All resulted in the oil heading to south Florida and then up the Atlantic coast.
The only difference in the outcomes had to do with timing. Different scenarios for the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current could see the oil arriving later.