Mixing hurricanes with oil in Gulf waters

Published 1:45 pm Friday, May 14, 2010

There appears to be a wide cone of uncertainty concerning the impact of a hurricane on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

USA Today says the spill could actually “help put a damper on hurricane formation in the Gulf, by putting a barrier between the atmosphere and the ocean.”

It quotes Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center, as saying the oil could lessen the evaporation of water into the air — an effect that normally fuels the development of tropical storms.

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Because many of the June storms form in the Gulf of Mexico, this theory could be seen as a tiny bit of good news amid the spreading oil slick. Unfortunately, Feltgen also says this effect would only hold up to wind speeds of 40 miles per hour, at which point the oil would begin breaking apart.

On the negative side, the Los Angeles Times quotes AccuWeather forecaster Joe Bastardi as saying a strong storm could not only send the oil slick north toward the coast, but oil droplets could become airborne and move inland.

The possibility of “oil rain” is a whole new environmental effect to worry about, especially if a storm were to move inland and rain itself out across the U.S.

And neither of those scenarios includes ocean currents, which could conceivably take the oil spill into the Florida Keys.

Who’s right? Who knows? The Gulf Coast has a great deal of experience with less-than-accurate forecasts for the severity of hurricane seasons. And its residents are rapidly learning about the reliability of forecasts about the movement of the oil spill.

What’s certain is that the approaching hurricane season will raise the anxiety level about the effects of the oil spill across the Gulf Coast. A quiet season would be better than finding out the hard way whether Feltgen is right.