* So-called Loop Current may carry oil to Florida Straits
* Scientist sees "imminent" tie up between oil and current
* Florida Everglades may be spared by black tide
By Tom Brown
MIAMI, May 4 Crude from the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill could eventually slosh ashore on Miami Beach or North Carolina's barrier islands, if it connects with a powerful sea current, an oceanographer said on Tuesday.
Robert Weisberg, a physical oceanographer at the University of South Florida, told a conference call the so-called Loop Current that sweeps around the Gulf was poised to connect with the spreading oil slick.
Once "entrainment" occurs, he said, the oil would be pulled quickly south along Florida's Gulf coast and out into the Florida Straits, between the United States and Cuba.
"Exactly when the oil will enter the Loop Current at the surface is unknown but it appears to be imminent," Weisberg said, referring to the prevailing current in the Gulf.
"It could be days or it could be longer but it looks like it's going to happen, and it looks like it's going to happen now sooner than later," he said.
However, depending on local winds, Florida's southwest beaches and the Florida Keys, along with coral reefs and the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades, could be spared from the oil slick, Weisberg said.
That is because ocean circulation models show it heading out to sea, past the Dry Tortugas islands, before it is caught up in the Gulf Stream and makes its way up the U.S. East Coast, he said.
"Once it's at the entrance to the Florida Straits it's only another week or so before it could be in the vicinity of Miami or Palm Beach and one more week or so until it could be as far north as Cape Hatteras," Weisberg said.
Asked about the possibility of the oil entering the Loop Current, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the agency had no immediate forecast of this.
"As far as the Florida Loop Current (goes), our predictions go to 72 hours out and right now the predictions are not (for) an effect on Florida at this moment," she said.
Weisberg said whether or not the oil got into shallow water on its possible ocean journey would be totally dependent on winds.
"Whether or not the oil makes landfall anywhere will depend on what the winds are doing at that particular point in time ... It's likely that there could be oil on the beaches in Miami but we really can't say for sure right now." (Editing by Pascal Fletcher)