[Updated at 11:06 a.m.] Tar balls found on a Florida Keys beach Monday, while not believed to be from a massive Gulf of Mexico spill, are nevertheless raising fears that oil will spread along the coastlines of Florida and beyond.
Researchers said it's unlikely - although not impossible - that the oil could have spread from the spill, off the coast of Louisiana, to the Keys so quickly. But they seem to agree that a plume of oil is in the process of getting dragged into the Loop Current. The current flows through Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico, then northward, where it loops southeast just south of the Florida Keys and travels to the west side of the western Bahamas, according to meteorologist Jeff Masters.
[Posted at 9:57 a.m.] The Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will conduct shoreline surveys in Key West, Florida, Tuesday after tar balls were found on a beach there, officials said.
The Coast Guard said in a statement it responded to the Florida Park Service report of 20 tar balls on the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park about 5:15 p.m. Monday.
"Park rangers conducted a shoreline survey of Fort Zachary Taylor and the adjacent Navy beach at Truman Annex and recovered the tar balls at a rate of nearly three tar balls an hour throughout the day, with the heaviest concentration found at high tide," the Coast Guard statement said.
Samples of the tar balls were sent to a laboratory for analysis to determine their origin. An aerial search of the area with a pollution investigator is also planned for Tuesday.
Although the source of the tar balls was unclear Tuesday, they could be an ominous sign that oil from a massive spill into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana has spread south and east.
Meteorologist Jeff Masters, in a blog posted Monday night on the Weather Underground website, said satellite imagery has confirmed that "a substantial tongue of oil" from the spill has entered the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current. The current flows through the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico, then northward, where it loops southeast just south of the Florida Keys and travels to the west side of the western Bahamas, he said.
However, whether or not the oil is actually in that current is the subject of debate. In a briefing Monday, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry told reporters that while some oil sheen was migrating toward the current, there was no oil in it.
"There's a very small stream of oil that has a very light sheen that is getting close to the Loop Current," NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told PBS' "NewsHour" on Monday. "It's likely that at some point it will be entrained by the Loop Current."
However, if the oil enters the current, it would take an estimated nine to 12 days to reach Florida, she said. Along the way, it would also become "highly diluted" and undergo natural weathering. "Any oil that would be reaching (the) Florida Strait might be in the form of tarballs, for example, and whether it ever comes ashore or not would be a function of onshore winds."
Masters said that portions of the Loop Current travel at about 4 mph, meaning the oil could take four to five days to reach Florida.
However, neither of those time frames would explain the tar balls found on the Keys Monday. Researchers say it's unlikely, although not impossible, that the tar balls are from the Gulf oil spill.