Hurricanes Versus The Oil Spill: What Could Happen?

Hurricanes Versus The Oil Spill:  What Could Happen?
Weather Talk
Thursday, August 5, 2010 - 3:31pm

The list of predictions on what might happen if a hurricane were to mix with the remaining oil are endless.  The main concerns are the related to the storm's development, its trajectory, the resulting storm surge, the waves/ocean currents, the physically powerful winds, and what would happen if the oil were to reach the Loop Current. 

Tropical cyclones feed on the hear that is released when moist air rises.  This causes the condensation of water vapor contained in the moist air, and it is possible that oil might slow down the hurricane formation process in the oil spill zone.  The oil would reduce the evaporation of seawater, thus it could slow down the genesis process.


The oil would slow down the formation process, but it would not affect the track or the storm or its intensity.  In other words, a hurricane could easily form outside the spill zone and then interact with the oil as it moved closer to shore.  Depending on the approach of the hurricane, increasing winds and substantial seas would put a halt on the containment operations.  Forceful seas would dislodge or demolish protective booms, rendering them useless as a protective barrier

The greatest influence of a hurricane would result from the storm surge.  Storm surge is primarily caused by high winds pushing on the ocean's surface causing the water to pile higher than ordinary sea level.  It refers to the rise of water from the storm -- plus tides, wave run-up, and freshwater flooding.  If storm surge were to occur, it could potentially carry goo inland beyond bays, marshes, and beaches to well-developed locations, which could easily destroy our wetlands. 

Because hurricane winds move counterclockwise, a storm passing southeast of the spill could push oil away from the Gulf shore, into open waters.  Yet, if the storm shifted west of the slick--similar to the path of Katrina--it could push oil toward the northern Gulf coast.  If this were to happen, some of the spilled crude could make its way closer to the Loop Current, which could be devastating to the Florida coast.

The Loop Current is a warm ocean current that flows northward between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula.  It loops west and south before exiting to the east through the Florida Straits into the Gulf Stream, then heads up the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.  If the oil were to make its way to the Current, delicate coral reefs and deep-sea reefs would become tainted by the crude oil.

Not all the predictions are as ominous as the ones just presented.  Some scientist suggest that storm surge may actually help disperse the oil offshore or break down the slick.  This would make the cleanup much easier.  It is almost impossible to judge what would be most probable if a hurricane hit the oil-covered waters.  In any scenario, we have to look at the effect a hurricane could have on the spill, and vice versa. 

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