In the Gulf of Mexico, an ocean circulation pattern called the Loop Current generates forces strong enough to damage the steel infrastructure of oil and gas rigs. The Loop Current’s fast-moving warm waters, which move up to two meters per second, travel from the Caribbean Sea to the eastern half of the Gulf of Mexico and out through the Straits of Florida towards the Gulf Stream. The current is of interest to industry experts and scientists due to its unpredictability; it tends to fracture into spinning eddies that veer unpredictably close to the shorelines of several Gulf Coast states.
While the Loop Current provides key ecological services such as transporting coral larvae, its fast-moving currents have complicated oil and gas drilling plans and rig construction. In 2015, nine of the 16 tendons that anchor Chevron’s Big Foot oil rig to the ocean floor broke and drifted, dragging nine massive buoys along with it. Industry experts and scientists believe that one potential cause of the incident was the strong eddies created by the Loop Current, which may have knocked down the tight, vertical tendons that anchor the platform to the seafloor. Chevron delayed the $5.1 billion project indefinitely following the incident, despite the well’s projected capacity of 30,000 barrels of oil per day.
Though the incident resulted in no spills or injuries, industry leaders have begun to closely examine the driving forces behind the Big Foot incident in order to anticipate future impacts of the Loop Current.
Given that offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production, understanding the trajectory and force of the Loop Current is crucial to ensuring the safety and security of U.S. energy production. Ocean observation satellites such as the National Weather Service’s Ocean Prediction Center have improved forecasting capacities to predict the Loop Current in real time, track the trajectory of eddies, and issue appropriate warnings. These satellite measurements are used by oil and gas companies planning major installations that require prolonged periods of calm currents to be successfully installed.
The Loop Current may also be tied to hurricane development. Two days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, scientists deployed surface drifters that detected a warm Loop Current eddy off the coast of Southern Louisiana. The eddy is believed to have fueled both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which both passed over the eddy and grew to become category five hurricanes. Accordingly, federal agencies are working to improve their understanding of the Gulf’s oceanography to ensure that coastal residents and industry alike are prepared for impacts of phenomena such as the Loop current and its eddies. For example, NOAA and the EPA are working collaboratively to make use of the NOAA P-3, or the “hurricane hunter” aircraft, which monitors the location of the Loop Current. With the help of satellites and aircraft such as NOAA P-3, oil companies and other offshore industries can better prepare for future risks posed by the Loop Current.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.