The bad news: Expect about 38,000,000 gallons of oil to be released into the Gulf

slowly toward the loop current,” said University of Miami oceanographer Nick Shay. “If this thing keeps going for two to three months, it’ll be catastrophic.”

Once the oil is caught up in the current it will travel in deep water for about one week until it reaches the Florida Straits, said Robert Weisberg, a University of South Florida oceanographer. In another week or so it would be near Miami and then in another week at the Outer Banks, he said. Local winds will determine if the oil slathers any beaches, he said.

He said a filament of the current is currently drifting north toward the oil slick. “The loop current is actually going to the oil versus the oil going to the loop current,” Weisberg said.

The oil spill crisis is shot through with unknowns, rough estimates, murky figures,” Achenbach writes. “The oil slick itself has been elusive and enigmatic, lurking offshore in the gulf for many days as if choosing its moment of attack. In rough, churning seas, the visible slick at the surface has shrunk in recent days.”

The oil by its nature is hard to peg: It is not a single, coherent blob, but rather an irregular, amoeba-shaped expanse that in some places forms a thin sheen on the water and in other locations is braided and stretched into tendrils of thick, orange-brown gunk. There may be a large plume of oil in the water column, unseen. A BP executive said Monday that the company is treating the oil at the gulf bottom with dispersant chemicals sprayed from a wand on a robotic submarine. Oil can vary from one well to another, and oil from very deep wells can be thicker and heavier than that from shallow wells.

No one is sure how much oil is leaking. The Coast Guard initially said there was no leak, then said there was a leak of 1,000 barrels a day, then upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels. Adm. Thad W. Allen, the leader of the federal response and commandant of the Coast Guard, has cautioned against putting too much credence in any estimate.

Ian MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University, has calculated the amount of oil based on satellite imagery and established models of oil dispersion and believes that the quantity is already greater than that dumped in Alaska by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. He estimated last week that 9 million gallons of oil are already in the water, compared with 10.8 million gallons in the Valdez disaster.