What might a Hurricane do to the Oil Slick in the Gulf of Mexico

What could the worst case scenario be if an inbound hurricane crosses the Gulf oil spill before hitting the US coast?

Considering the extent of oil extraction operations in the Gulf of Mexico and its well-known efficacy for producing storms up to category five hurricanes such as Katrina in 2005, shouldn’t we expect someone to have done studies on what might occur if a major oil spill and a major hurricane should cross paths? Either the US Government, the oil companies or both should have! Yet no such studies have been put forward to the public since the Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22, 2010 and perhaps as much as 100,000 barrels (4.2 million US gallons) per day, the upper estimate of Steve Wereley, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, began gushing into the Gulf.

What does that tell us? Either some people were not doing their jobs, studying potential disaster situations and then developing contingency plans, or they were, but the worst case scenario is so bad that no-one wants to say!

There is talk about large waves coated in layers of oil being driven by storms further inland, effectively destroying coastal wetland areas, coating the animals and plants that live there with few survivors. Further decimating the livelihoods of those in the tourism industry in the states bordering the Gulf and severely impacting the environment and ecology of the region for who knows how many years into the future. But, as bad as that is, is it as bad as it can get?   

Oil from the ongoing spill both floats on the surface of the Gulf’s waters and is suspended as droplets to an unknown depth below. Oil floating on water readily burns and storms and hurricanes can generate lightning strikes between cloud or air masses and the water’s surface below. Therefore, significant amounts of oil could be ignited during a hurricane, producing acrid clouds of fumes.

Oil floats on water because it is lighter than water and hurricanes manage to pick up large amounts of surface water as they progress across the seas, therefore an hurricane crossing an oil slick would pick up large amounts of oil droplets as well. Because of the strength of the winds, these droplets would not necessarily be all that small. They could vary from droplets equivalent to water droplets in a mist to globules perhaps as large as golf balls.

Worst case scenario: Even a storm, let alone a category 5 hurricane, could kill everything in its path besides anaerobic bacteria and people with adequate shelter and supplies of oxygen. The combination of oil droplets and fumes would asphyxiate everything else. Photosynthesizing plants produce an excess of oxygen in sunlight, but need oxygen at night or heavily overcast weather. Even if they survived through the hurricane, they would likely be covered in a layer of oil afterward that would clog the pores in their leaves, killing them off.

We can certainly hope that it will not be anywhere near that bad. In fact, a coating of oil on the ocean’s surface may reduce the strength of a developing storm. We can’t really know, because the closest we have come to this sort of disaster before was when the Ixtoc 1 exploratory well operated by PEMEX, the Mexican national oil corporation, experienced a blowout that resulted in the release of about 3.3 million barrels (140 million US gallons) of crude oil into the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in 1979. That experience is too small and dissimilar to extrapolate from.

It is possible that an hurricane will actually break up and disperse the oil slick over an extended area, mitigating its impact on the Gulf environment. Studies done in 1999 estimated that twice the spill from the Exxon Valdez seeps into the Gulf per year from oil rigs, pipes and natural seepage that has been occurring for thousands of years. That seems to be occurring without noticeable impact, so if the Deepwater Horizon spill is scattered by an hurricane the ecology of the Gulf and its coastal regions may be better able to cope.   

The US government and oil companies, particularly British Petroleum, will no doubt label my worst case scenario as alarmist and exaggerated. Alarmist, yes, after all, I am sounding an alarm about what might happen. Exaggerated? I certainly hope so! But both have responsibility for this developing situation and therefore reason to underplay how serious it could be. The US government in particular will want to negate a panic reaction, the same mindset they had when Katrina struck and likely leading to the same lack of preparedness in dealing with its aftermath.

All I can say is that I am both glad I do not live in a US state bordering the Gulf of Mexico and I’m concerned for all the people, animals and plants that do. While there is little that can be done for the wild animals and plants, I would recommend that anyone in the path of a hurricane that is coming in across the Gulf oil spill evacuate to an area outside the storm path if they possibly can! And I hope that doing so turns out to be completely unnecessary.


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