An aspect of the BP Gulf oil spill of 2010 that has left everyone scratching their head is what is going to happen when a hurricane hits? There is no longer any use in pretending the cleanup efforts are on schedule or even going well. There is also no use pretending that the area the spill covers is not going to interact with a cyclone of some sort. While there are no absolutes, there is a strong reason to theorize that the interaction of spilled oil swept up into a cyclone’s eyewall could create what may wind up being known as killer hurricanes.
The first thing to examine is the obvious damage. As a storm surges forward it is going to propel some of that oil from the spill to move forward as well. That may result in ugly looking oil soaked beaches, or in a worst scenario carrying oil into coastal marshes. When oil reaches coastal marshes the immediate impact will be visually evident within weeks. The majority of what makes a marsh will die. Some plant life will experience death to oil covered shoots alone, and some to the roots. If root damage is extensive enough the marsh disappears and everything that depended on that delicate ecosystem goes with it. That is the slow death version which could take 2 to 3 years to occur.
If that were to be extended and we project for a storm that was even a little less intense than Katrina was, the cleanup effort would be impossible. There would be no way to locate and save the vast majority of oil soaked birds and animals. The problem with a hurricane is that it can take oil in directions that were previously considered more than safe. That could mean it guides the oil further out to sea, or inland - there is no telling until a storm track is defined.
The second and possibly most significant worry is what happens when oil is swept up into the hurricane itself? It is territory that can be considered uncharted as no one has ever actually studied the “what if” scenario before. Hurricanes have passed over small contained spills before, but never anything like the BP oil spill. According to many prominent scientists and experienced severe weather forecasters, the result could be devastation unlike what has been seen before.
As oil coats the surface of the ocean water it raises the water temperature slightly because it is absorbing sunlight and not reflecting it. That means that a hurricane would be more attracted to that specific area as it feeds on warm moisture to grow. The hotter the water swept up into a hurricane the more powerful it is. How much stronger is unknown, but it is not considered unreasonable to theorize that an additional 15-20 knot increase is a valid possibility. That may not sound like much, but that means a storm is more organized and has the ability to travel deeper after making landfall.
Even NOAA who has tried to put a positive spin on things and keep fears down among the public admits that there is potential for an extreme mess. Many have theorized that oil coating the surface of the Gulf waters would actually retard hurricane development. That is true in one very isolated area - the point of the gusher. Otherwise the oil coat is not sufficient enough to slow down progress.
The problem then is that there is at least the strong potential to have stronger more organized storms traveling further inland that are causing short term wind damage and longer term oil contamination. As distasteful and perhaps even fanciful as it sounds, imagine a building, a home -anything - being hammered by winds, rain, and tar balls. There is the possibility that some areas could be declared uninhabitable at least short term until an extensive cleanup could be performed.
NOAA is maintaining that no oil will be swept up into a hurricane, but they also admit they have zero experience with a situation like this. Other researchers including several prominent meteorologists and government agencies maintain oil will have to mix in, at least in some small part, and have gone far enough to make contingency plans in case it happens. No one, including NOAA actually has any experience with what will happen regarding this scenario - and NOAA does make it clear their experience regarding oil spills and hurricanes are limited to when the hurricane creates the spill - not a situation where the best case scenario is 19,000 barrels of crude pouring out daily.
As awful as that all could be, a hurricane does hold the potential to disperse some oil from the spill. The key to that is that a hurricane would have to have the right approach, intensity, and then track out to sea. That is a somewhat unlikely scenario given historical tracks of Gulf hurricanes, but it does remain a possibility. The only other hope is there is not a tropical cyclone until the cleanup is completed or all the researchers are wrong, or perhaps that it is as simple as oil and water don’t mix.