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As BP Halts Cap Tests, Scientists Fear Spill's Future

The old idiom “in like a lion, out like a lamb” might need some revising in 2011. Based on a recent study by the University of Hawaii, March 2011 will go out more like a sea monster -- thanks to the BP oil spill.

As BP abruptly halts efforts to cap the open Gulf Coast rig and drill a relief well, spring 2011 bodes badly. Very badly. According to a simulation conducted by the scientists at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak could reach Georgia, the Carolinas, and even Europe by day 360 of the spill. July 15 marks day 87.

The study, titled “The long-term fate of the oil spill in the Atlantic,” uses a high-resolution ocean flow simulator called Ocean General Circulation Model for the Earth Simulator (OFES). Researchers based their analysis on the fate of 8 million buoyant particles -- which are representative of the oil spilled.

"The paths of the particles were calculated in eight typical years over 360 days from the beginning of the spill… From these eight typical years, five were selected to create an animation for which the calculated extent of the spill best matches current observational estimates,” said Fabian Schloesser, graduate assistant in the Department of Oceanography.

In addition, researchers used the following assumptions:

Within 150 days of the April 20 spill (that is, by September), BP will have stopped the oil flow; an estimated 50,000 barrels of oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig will leak each day for those 150 days; northeasterly winds in October and November will push the oil east along the U.S. coastline; and 20% of the oil must pass through a narrow channel of the Florida Current, which will filter the oil via a bottleneck.

The purpose of the study is to “help guide research and mitigation efforts,” according to a press release from the school.

Axel Timmermann, professor of Oceanography, and Oliver Elison Timm also worked on the simulation. Both are from the SOEST International Pacific Research Center, which is sponsored by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), NASA and NOAA.

Wednesday morning, BP halted testing of a new temporary well cap following a federal call to re-evaluate the testing procedure. On Monday, BP installed the 75-ton cap to slow the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico until a permanent fix with cement and mud could take place. On Tuesday, BP began to close the cap’s three valves to analyze the effect on internal pressure and check for leaks surrounding the rig.

In addition, BP stopped drilling its relief well, which is supposed to be completed sometime between late July and mid-August. On July 14, oil continued to flow freely into the Gulf.