Hurricanes and the BP Spill – Separating Fact From Fiction

NOAA-Hurricane-Katrina-Aug28-05-2145UTCLast week NOAA released its Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook, which describes how conditions are ripe for a year with above average storm activity. NOAA estimates that eight to 14 hurricanes will form in the Atlantic basin this year. In a typical year there are four to eight.

With the BP spill in the Gulf, hurricanes and other tropical storms are likely to make it more difficult to stop the gusher and clean up the mess. NWF wildlife scientist Doug Inkley, Ph.D., and NWF climate scientist Amanda Staudt, Ph.D., gave us their assessment.

Wildlife Promise: How can a hurricane or storm hamper efforts to contain and stop the spill?

Essentially, in a major hurricane, any part of the Gulf area in the hurricane’s trajectory is evacuated, including all personnel trying to contain and abate the spill. It would force all ships to be removed from the area for safety, including those conducting oil spill recovery and wildlife protection operations.  It appears this would mean unabated spilling into the sea because the current containment strategy is not expected to stop all leakage and works only as long as the oil is taken out of the riser pipe at the ocean surface. A major storm could also damage any offshore platforms being used to stop the oil spill: after Hurricane Katrina, at least 20 such platforms were missing, sunk, or gone adrift. The choppy seas accompanying a major storm also would render skimmers and booms totally ineffective during that time.

WP: What happens to the oil that’s already spilled when it’s hit by a major storm?

A major hurricane would accelerate oil break-up and dispersion, and also spread the oil over a larger area, but diluted. Depending on the trajectory of the storm, water can be pushed inshore, forcing oil into sensitive places it isn’t currently. By the way, at the present time the Mississippi River is our friend because its continuous outflow has kept most of the oil from coming ashore even though the winds and currents over the Gulf have pushed the oil north towards the shore.  Any hurricane can overcome this beneficial effect.

WP: So, it is possible a storm or hurricane, depending upon its track, could also help break up the spill or move it out to sea?

That’s also possible. However, even in that scenario, we have to remember that all personnel doing containment, recovery and protection operations will likely need to be evacuated from the area, leaving oil to continue gushing.

WP: What’s the impact for the large deep water plumes of oil we are hearing about? Can they be churned up to the surface?

A hurricane will have minimal deep water effect as the spill is a mile below the surface and there are huge plumes of oil down deep. Hurricanes only mix up the surface waters of the ocean, perhaps as deep as 0.12 miles.

WP: Some have speculated that surface oil might make a hurricane weaker or stronger, since hurricanes draw strength from warm waters.

How the oil might affect a hurricane is largely unknown. Most likely hurricane winds would be strong enough to simply break up the thin oily surface, meaning that the oil would not affect the storm directly. MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel recently speculated that the black oil might already be absorbing extra heat and reducing evaporation of water, causing the Gulf waters to warm up. If that’s the case, then there would be more energy available to fuel a storm that entered the Gulf.

WP: Others have said the oil might be sucked into the storms causing oily rains inland?
No, it won’t ‘rain’ oil as some have speculated. Hurricanes are powered by ocean heat and supplied water by evaporation. While sea spray along the coasts may include some oil, it won’t be incorporated into rainfall.

(Photo: Hurricane Katrina provided by NOAA)