The Sciences

Of Hurricanes and Oil

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMay 20, 2010 11:40 AM

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The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1, and forecasts suggest an above average year. And as we all know, Atlantic hurricanes are deadliest when they get into the warm Gulf of Mexico. It is almost like a hurricane jumping on a trampoline. They can go from Category 1 to Category 5 in 24 hours in such a favorable environment. But this year, as we also know, there is something different about the Gulf. It is full of oil. What are the implications of this fact for hurricanes? And conversely, what might a powerful hurricane do to the oil spill if it were to run across it? This is a topic I've been thinking about, and I don't have definitive answers yet. I'd like to do more research and interview some experts--but for now, let's take a rough and dirty approach to the issue, based on what is already out there. And let's tackle the first question first: What would an oil slick do to a hurricane? According to storm ace Jeff Masters, the answer is not very much. Here's what Masters is thinking. It's certainly true that oil on the surface of the ocean could inhibit a hurricane's access to its fuel source--the warm seawater whose evaporation drives the hurricane heat engine. However, hurricanes are vastly larger than the oil slick, which limits the potential effect of this phenomenon. Masters created this telling image, comparing the size of Hurricane Gustav of 2008 with the size of the oil slick, to give some sense of the dramatic disparity of scale:

Furthermore, observes Masters, a powerful storm would probably mix the ocean so much that the oil wouldn't remain at the surface; it would be churned everywhere by massive waves. In this context, the evaporation that fuels the hurricane would scarcely be inhibited. But what about the second question (which now seems more pertinent)? What would a hurricane do to the slick? A recent report in USA Today attempts to tackle this question. It isn't a very good article, though, because it doesn't have a lot of depth. So let me try to summarize and throw out some thoughts that may help us do better. Once again, I'd like to interview some scientists about this. But already, some things are apparent--for instance, that the answer is going to have a hell of a lot to do with the particular track of the hurricane. There certainly does appear to be the potential for stirring up more oil from the deep, as well as driving it towards land. In particular, if a powerful hurricane were to cross the oil slick so that its right front quadrant were over the slick--and if the hurricane's trajectory was taking it towards land when this occurred--then it seems to me that you might have the worst case scenario. The right front quadrant is the strongest part of the storm, the part that most deeply mixes the ocean, and that drives a powerful wall of water ahead of it--so this scenario truly might give us an oily Katrina. However, I can only imagine that the chances of a powerful hurricane hitting the oil slick at such an angle, and with such a trajectory, is relatively low in any given hurricane season...just as the probability of any particular place having a hurricane landfall in a given year is pretty low. But still. It might be pretty awful. I am sorely tempted to go back through my scientist rolodex for

Storm World

so as to write more on this question....

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