Gulf Oil Slick Approaching Loop Current

Top NASA image acquired May 1 - 8, 2010, bottom NASA image acquired May 18, 2010.


During the first weeks following the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico, oil drifting from the site of the incident usually headed west and northwest to the Mississippi River Delta. But in the third week of May, currents drew some of the oil southeast, where the chance that it would become mixed up with the Loop Current and spread to Florida or even the U.S. East Coast increased.


This pair of sea surface temperature images shows how the warm waters of the Loop Current connect the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean (top image, May 1–8, 2010) and the dynamic northern margin of the Loop Current a week and a half later, on May 18 (bottom image). Based on observations of infrared energy collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, the images show cooler temperatures in blue and purple and warmer temperatures in pink and yellow. Cloudy areas are light gray.


The Loop Current pushes up into the Gulf from the Caribbean Sea. The current’s tropical warmth makes it stand out from the surrounding cooler waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this image. The current loses its northward momentum about mid-way through the gulf, and bends back on itself to flow south. It joins warm waters flowing eastward between Florida and Cuba, which then merge with the Gulf Stream Current on its journey up the East Coast.


At a May 18 press conference, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that “satellite imagery on May 17 indicates that the main bulk of the oil is dozens of miles away from the Loop Current, but that a tendril of light oil has been transported down close to the Loop Current. NOAA is conducting aerial observations today to determine with certainty whether oil has actually entered the Loop Current. The proximity of the southeast tendril of oil to the Loop Current indicates that oil is increasingly likely to become entrained. When that occurs, oil could reach the Florida Straits in 8 to 10 days.”


The bottom image shows the location of the leaking well and the approximate location of the southern arm of the oil slick on May 17 (based on natural-color MODIS imagery). Oil was very close to the Loop Current, whose warm waters appear in yellow near the bottom of the image. However, there is also an eddy of cooler water (purple) circulating counterclockwise at the top of the Loop Current. According to NOAA, “Some amount of any oil drawn into the Loop Current would likely remain in the eddy, heading to the northeast, and some would enter the main Loop Current, where it might eventually head to the Florida Strait.”


NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using data obtained from the Goddard Level 1 and Atmospheric Archive and Distribution System (LAADS) and Ocean Color Web. Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.


Instrument: Aqua – MODIS


To download the high res files go to:


To learn more about the spill go to:


NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is home to the nation's largest organization of combined scientists, engineers and technologists that build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, the sun, our solar system, and the universe.

  • Canuck with a camera PRO 5y

    Ohhh that isn't good
  • Godspeed Yang 5y

    Wish the pollution could be under control ASAP!!!
  • ReadyAimClick 5y

    This is so frustrating! In this day age we cant even come up with a proper solution to stop this mess! You know this will be one of the gov't biggest excuses to raise gas prices even higher! Our dependecy on oil is showing to be destructive for all aspects of the environment.
  • monicaflick 5y

    Such beautiful charts to demonstrate such tragic facts.

    Let's hope that in the end something good will come out of the terrible loss of wildlife and habitat, to ensure that similar accidemts will not occur again.
  • Tailer's Family - journeying! 5y

    Thank you for sharing the true state of things for us.
  • Weaselmcfee 5y

    Oh my....
  • Matt Jalbert PRO 5y

    I hope everyone think seriously about how much oil they need to run their lives, and starts cutting back on energy-intensive living. We should all eat less meat, drive more efficient cars and drive less, use less plastic, make the choice to live in more compact communities in smaller more energy-efficient housing. Oil energy isn't free.
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Taken on May 19, 2010
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