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By early May, the researchers were trying to track the progress of the oil spill using existing fluid dynamics models and applying them to aerial and satellite images of the area of the gulf surrounding the spill site. But Mezić says they "were not happy" with the results. So his team incorporated recent equations he had developed into U.S. Naval Research Laboratory ocean-current data. The resulting "visualization software" can reproduce how an oil plume in a given body of water will spread.

The new model revealed that a fluid dispersing within a larger fluid—such as an oil plume in the ocean—tends to break into long, thin filaments instead of a single, gradually expanding cloud. Mezić calls them "stretching events," and they're caused by the chaotic attracting and repelling interaction of the water and oil, powered by the currents of the gulf, which flow at different rates and in different directions.

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