The mammoth Gulf oil spill is bad enough without oil traveling through currents to other parts of the world. But that’s exactly what has happened–the oil slick has reportedly been captured by the Loop Current, a fast ocean current that moves from the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico before looping west and south, exiting through the Florida Straits. Earlier this week, authorities thought the worst when approximately 50 tar balls showed up on beaches in the Florida Keys. The good news–if that’s what you can call it–is that the balls aren’t from the spill. But how can the Coast Guard possibly be sure?
“We have samples taken from the spill and we have these tar balls. We
compare those using analytical chemical methods, specifically gas
chromatography and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry,” Dr. Wayne Gronlund, Manager of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Laboratory, tells FastCompany.com.” Those
instruments allow us to develop a chemical profile of the oil, and we can compare
profiles to each other.”
The tar ball analyzation process is fairly quick. Samples from the
Florida Keys were flown by Coast Guard jet aircraft last night, and the
Marine Safety Lab had results by the morning. “Each sample takes 65
minutes to run,” Gronlund says. While the analyzation process can tell
researchers that the Florida Keys tar balls aren’t from the BP oil
spill, nobody knows where they did come from. Gronlund tells us that the Marine Safety Lab is working with the Coast Guard’s Sector Key West to find out.
The Florida Keys tar balls are slightly smaller than a human fist, but they can vary in size. “Tar balls are derived from heavy crude or heavy fuel oil. Some lighter
parts of the oil evaporate or dissolve, while heavier parts gets gummy and goo up
together. They mix with sand and grass on the beach and become sort of like a black
rock,” Gronlund says. It’s not a pretty sight (see the video below). And since the oil is now moving through the Loop Current, it’s certainly possible that tar balls from the spill will eventually show up in the Keys.