See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 1

Walls of Water Make Chaotic Currents More Predictable

Ocean currents and other chaotic phenomena are supposed to be inherently unpredictable. But mathematicians are finding a method to nature's madness

Andrew Bannecker

All along the Gulf of Mexico, 2010 was the summer of the Oil Spill. As BP's uncapped Deepwater Horizon oil well gushed away off of Louisiana, tourists stayed away from the Gulf Coast in droves, convinced by news reports that oil was coming ashore or would do so imminently. As far away as Fort Myers and Key Largo in Florida, beaches were deserted and hotel occupancy rates were down.

In reality, the situation was never so dire—especially on the western coast of Florida. This part of the Gulf Coast was protected for the duration of the oil spill by a persistent, invisible divide. Lying above the continental shelf off of Florida was an unseen line that directed the oil and prevented it from spreading farther east. It was not a solid object, but a wall of water that moved around as ocean currents shifted. Nevertheless, this wall was just as effective as any seawall or containment boom.

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