Shockingly, Hurricanes And Oil Don't Mix Well

by Bradford Plumer | June 3, 2010

The Gulf hardly needs further battering, but this week is the beginning of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and NOAA is forecasting that this could be an especially intense year (that's partly because El Niño, which tends to suppress Atlantic hurricanes, appears to be dying down). So what does that mean for the oil spill? This NOAA fact sheet lays out a few predictions.

On the bright side, the high winds and waves can help stir up the oil in the ocean and speed along the biodegradation process. That helps. But the bad news is very bad: Depending on which way the hurricanes travel, storm surges could carry a lot of oil ashore and do severe damage to wetlands along the coast. The marshes in the Delta region play a critical role in defending the area against tropical cyclones, yet they're being steadily weakened by rising sea levels and the fact that the network of levees along the Mississippi have prevented many parts of the wetlands from being replenished with sediment. If the slick gets blown inland by the hurricanes, the oil can kill off marsh grasses and cause a huge amount of further erosion.

Worse still, hurricanes could disrupt the various attempts to stop the leak. Right now, it looks like the most realistic hope at stopping this gusher is for BP to drill a relief well, which likely won't be ready until August (and even then, drilling a relief well in deepwater is extremely tricky, as Kate McKenzie explains). An active hurricane season could delay those efforts by weeks, especially if the cyclones do any damage to the rigs. And, if that's not enough, a new study by Bill Teague of the Naval Research Laboratory suggests that some 31,000 miles of pipeline along the Gulf seafloor could crack or rupture under pressure from the deepwater currents caused by strong hurricanes. That happened in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, causing about 18,000 barrels of oil to leak out, but even weaker hurricanes could cause a lot of damage, if they hit just right.

But hey, at least there's not likely to be any oil in the rain. NOAA explains: "Hurricanes draw water vapor from a large area, much larger than the area covered by oil, and rain is produced in clouds circulating the hurricanes." So at least the Gulf is getting a few small favors.

(Flickr photo credit: alpoma)

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