Intel Supercomputers Say BP Oil Spill Will Spread Up the East Coast

A University of Hawaii simulation of the spread of oil from the BP spill
A University of Hawaii simulation of the spread of oil from the BP spill

As BP (BP) has struggled to cap the gushing Deepwater Horizon well for the past three months and tens of millions of gallons of oil have escaped into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have speculated about how far the spilled crude would range from the initial disaster site.

Complex models crunched on supercomputers suggest that the oil will wash not only ashore on the West Coast of Florida but will also reach much of the entire Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.

Two teams of researchers, from the University of Hawaii and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), have relied on some of the planet's fastest supercomputers to compile these models, which take into account myriad factors including tides, currents, winds, water temperatures and the relative weights of oil versus water.

Dropping a "Virtual Dye" Into the Water

The NCAR team used an Encanto Supercomputer, housed at an Intel (INTC) facility in New Mexico, to perform the calculations. The massive water-cooled system uses 3,500 Intel XEON processors linked for superfast calculations. Led by scientist Synte Peacock, the NCAR team retooled an existing computer model called the Parallel Ocean Program that was designed to measure the "weather" in the ocean by visualizing and simulating disparate currents and flows around the world. The researchers then tweaked the model to set it to start from the coordinates of the Deepwater Horizon spill zone.

"We basically dropped a 'virtual dye' in the water, and then watched to see where it would go," Peacock said, according to a blog posting on the Inside Scoop @Intel. The results showed that the Gulf of Mexico's powerful Loop Current is likely to push the oil eastward, hitting Florida and then swinging around the Sunshine State. From there, the oil would accelerate as it hit the fast-moving current of the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf Stream conveyor belt, which extends up the East Coast before swinging toward Europe.

The Hawaii team conducted research using a different computer model but with similar results. The team of researchers from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa simulated the effect of 8 million buoyant particles continuously released from April 20 to Sept. 17, 2010, at the coordinates of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

The Carolinas, Georgia and Norther Florida Will See Oil

For this simulation the team used a computer model called the high-resolution Ocean General Circulation Model For the Earth Simulator (OFES). The simulation assumed an estimated flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well of 50,000 barrels per day over a 150-day period. Like the NCAR model, the OFES model calculated that the oil moves across the Gulf of Mexico, enters the Loop Current and the nearby Florida Current, before reaching the Gulf Stream.

"After one year, about 20% of the particles initially released at the Deepwater Horizon location have been transported through the Straits of Florida and into the open Atlantic," said UH oceanographer Axel Timmermann.

The upshot? Coastlines of the Carolinas, Georgia and Northern Florida could witness the arrival of the oil spill as early as October 2010. Other states up the East Coast could also be affected, although less so because of the ongoing dilution of the spill as it travels north. Fortunately, Europe will probably be spared due to the same dilution effect.

The University of Hawaii team found that a likely spot to capture oil as it spreads is the narrow Straits of Florida. A video simulation of their research was posted on YouTube.