Jeff Masters on what might happen when a hurricane meets the Gulf oil spill

Jeff Masters: It’s pretty much guaranteed that we’re going to see the oil spill interact with a storm.

Now that hurricane season has begun, people are asking what will happen if a major hurricane passes close to or directly through the Gulf oil spill.

Jeff Masters: Well, the transport of the oil is going to be significantly increased by the strong winds of a hurricane.

Jeff Masters is a meteorologist at the popular website

Jeff Masters: In particular, I think the oil will go along most of the Gulf coast if you do have such a storm, perhaps all the way to Texas and southward along the western Florida coast, potentially down through the keys and around the Atlantic side of the east coast of Florida.

Masters said there’s good news and bad news about hurricanes and the Gulf oil spill. The good news is a hurricane can break up patches of oil slick.

Jeff Masters: A hurricane is going to dilute the oil to a large degree, because you do have such strong winds and wave action. Now, I think in general, the hurricane will be a good thing, as far as if you’ve already got oil on your coast, it’s going to tend to clean it off. We’ve seen that in that past with other oil spills. If you’ve got an oily beach, the wave action comes in and washes some of the oil off. It depends on how smooth your beach is.

Rocky beaches and marshland, though, will have more places where oil can hide from a hurricane, said Masters. And for the bad news, a hurricane might spread oil to new places.

Jeff Masters: I think with the counter-clockwise spin of winds around a hurricane, you’re going to see oil get to a large portion of the shore, along a good portion of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. And in addition to that transport, you’re going to see the storm surge of the hurricane take the oil inland quite a few miles, wherever there’s low lying areas. So you’ll see the oil get deposited inland in marshes and potentially residential areas along the coast there.

Dr. Masters spoke about what an oil-soaked hurricane might do to marshland that lines the coast of Louisiana.

Jeff Masters: We have some experience with oil spills in the marshlands of Louisiana. During Hurricane Katrina, that strong storm surge busted open a number of tanks of oil along the coast. In fact, the amount of oil spilled was about 2/3 of the size of the Exxon-Valdez disaster. And that oil went into the marshlands and they did have some success in cleaning it up. In fact, one of the areas they went and burned and they got rid of about 70 percent of the oil that way. And the marsh that they burned did recover within about six months, at least visually. From the air, you could see it was green again. But I guess down in the roots there was still oil and it was still affecting the bottom feeders like the crabs and then of course the creatures that feed on that. There’s some hope that maybe in this case we’re not going to see widespread destruction of the marshlands of Louisiana from the oil.

Chemical dispersants being used to break up the oil spill are a cause for concern, said Masters.

Jeff Masters: We don’t know about the dispersants in that water. How toxic are they to plant-life on the land? I don’t think anybody knows that. My gut feeling is that it probably won’t be a problem. But there are a lot of unknowns. And what about this spray from a hurricane? It’s going to take water and blow it inland several miles, and in that spray are going to be dispersants we know are toxic and there’s also going to be some oil. What’s going to be the effect of those things on the vegetation? I’m not looking forward at all to finding out the answer.

The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a busy hurricane season for 2010.

Jeff Masters: I have a bad feeling about this hurricane season. Everybody who watches hurricanes does, because all of the four major factors that we look at to see if a hurricane season is going to be active or not, lining up to say that this is going to be a much above average season for activity. And NOAA and Colorado State University, which make forecasts of seasonal hurricane activity have put out their largest numbers ever for a pre-season forecast. And with the oil out sitting out there, and then also a million people in Haiti sitting out there without shelter, it’s really shaping up to be an ominous hurricane season. And I sure hope we get lucky and these forecasts are incorrect.

Dr. Masters spoke about how the oil might effect sea surface temperatures.

Jeff Masters: Number one, it’s dark and will absorb some sunlight. And number two, it reduces evaporation. So it will warm up the sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico some, but I don’t think that’s a big enough area to be concerned with. The place we need to be concerned with is the stretch of ocean between the Caribbean and Africa. That’s called the main development region for hurricanes. And that’s where 85 percent of all the intense hurricanes are category three and higher eventually get their start. And if the sea surface temperatures are much above normal, we tend to have more intense hurricanes. And sea surface temperatures are at record levels in that part of the ocean right now. And that gives us some concern that this year is going to see many more intense hurricanes than usual.

June 21, 2010

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