The idea of a hurricane hitting the devastating oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is a scary one. You picture sheets of oil being blown inland, coating or killing all life in their path.
It remains to be seen, however, what will happen if a hurricane does head that way and if one does the result might not be as bad as you might expect. The worst case scenario is even more devastation, yet the best case scenario is a hurricane actually speeding up dispersal.
It all depends on which way the hurricane heads. A hurricane moving to the east of the slick will take the oil further out to sea. This is not a bad thing coupled with the dispersal effects a storm has. Life cannot deal with concentrated oil slicks. Oil kills.
However oil is in fact an organic material and can be broken down by bacteria if dispersed. This is not to say that things will magically improve if a hurricane breaks up the spill but they will be at least a bit better for the delicate ocean ecosystems.
However a hurricane working a path to the west will throw oil onto the coast. The high waves created by the hurricane will send the water into vulnerable coastal habitats. Plants and animals that get covered in oil are likely to die from suffocation, poisoning, or from being rendered unable to move. The wetlands along the coast of the south west United States contain areas of incredibly biodiversity that is already struggling because of the spill. Some organisms were endangered beforehand. If things get worse then we are looking at the possible extinction of many more species.
The effects on people in the areas likely to be affected are serious too. The livelihoods of people depending on tourism or seafood have already been devastated. With the oil slick being brought further inland this can only get worse. Low lying regions such as Louisiana are particularly vulnerable.
Hurricanes also would interfere with the ongoing cleanup efforts. Ships, and those working along the coast cannot work during storms. At the very least a hurricane would slow down the cleanup even if it didn’t actually make matters worse.
What can be done in the worst case? BP claims to have contingency plans. Those who witnessed their previous solutions might be more than a little sceptical about how effective these prove to be.
The only way to stop the oil being thrown onto the coast is a physical barrier. These barriers or sand berms have already been built along the coast of Louisiana. However they are not high enough to deal with the very high waves a hurricane produces.
The paths of hurricanes are notoriously difficult to predict. Clearly whatever that can be done to mitigate the damage of the worst case scenario should be done now. Rather than be surprised at something that could well happen, as was the case with the spill itself, serious contingency action should be taken.
Hopefully it will not prove to be necessary. It needs to be done though, as we have already seen the tragic results of something you thought could be skipped, like safety measures, turning out to be vital.