The hurricane season has begun, and a more active than usual season appears likely. Meanwhile, the BP oil spill cleanup is unlikely to be finished before August. It is indeed possible that a hurricane could pass over the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. What would be the effect if it did?
It might make the situation even worse, partly by driving oil deeper into wetlands. It might actually improve matters, by dispersing and weathering the oil, so that natural processes could break it down more quickly. Certainly, another Gulf hurricane would stall the cleanup. No one knows what the effects would be, but here are some educated guesses.
One internet rumor is that the oil could actually gentle a hurricane, by preventing ocean heat from feeding the storm and by making it harder for waves and storm surge to build. That is unlikely. A hurricane has been building since it left the coast of Africa, and may be 200 miles wide or more. Huge as the effect of the spill is, its size is nothing to a hurricane.
Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane expert at MIT, told All Things Considered that he thinks the oil in the Gulf might make actually hurricanes stronger. The dark oil might absorb the sun’s heat and keep it in the water, he says, and heat energy drives hurricanes. The stronger hurricanes produced this way might drive oil damage farther inland.
On the other hand, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains here that it is unlikely in their opinion that the oil would have a measurable strengthening effect on a huge. NOAA does not believe the oil would affect the storm’s path, its intensity, the reach of the storm surge, or the height of the near shore waves.
Also according to NOAA, a hurricane might benefit wetlands by breaking up and diluting the oil. Broken up, it would degrade faster, leaving the Gulf Coast in better shape sooner. A hurricane might spread the oil over a wider area, NOAA says, but it is hard to know where. A hurricane passing east of the oil might drive the oil away from the coast because its counterclockwise winds would push the oil south. A hurricane passing to the west might drive the oil onto the coast. No one knows.
However, if the storm arrives when the oil is already in the wetlands, the storm surge might drive the oil farther inland, and into areas that are harder to access and clean. It might mix the oil with other storm debris.
Effects on the cleanup
A hurricane could certainly disrupt the berms and barriers put in place to keep oil offshore. It would force the cleanup to stop, and divert personnel and resources to more pressing tasks. It might destroy ships and equipment.
A hurricane would likely put more oil and other pollutants in the water from onshore sources. This happened during hurricanes Rita and Katrina, among others.
If oil is still flowing when a hurricane arrives, work to plug the leak will stop. Therefore, the strongest effect a potential hurricane might have is that of hurrying the workers, spurring them to shut off the leak before foul weather blasts through. That is, if they can.