Of Hurricanes and Oil

By Chris Mooney | May 20, 2010 7:40 am

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1, and forecasts suggest an above average year. And as we all know, Atlantic hurricanes are deadliest when they get into the warm Gulf of Mexico. It is almost like a hurricane jumping on a trampoline. They can go from Category 1 to Category 5 in 24 hours in such a favorable environment.

But this year, as we also know, there is something different about the Gulf. It is full of oil.

What are the implications of this fact for hurricanes? And conversely, what might a powerful hurricane do to the oil spill if it were to run across it?

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about, and I don’t have definitive answers yet. I’d like to do more research and interview some experts–but for now, let’s take a rough and dirty approach to the issue, based on what is already out there.

And let’s tackle the first question first: What would an oil slick do to a hurricane? According to storm ace Jeff Masters, the answer is not very much.

Here’s what Masters is thinking. It’s certainly true that oil on the surface of the ocean could inhibit a hurricane’s access to its fuel source–the warm seawater whose evaporation drives the hurricane heat engine. However, hurricanes are vastly larger than the oil slick, which limits the potential effect of this phenomenon.

Masters created this telling image, comparing the size of Hurricane Gustav of 2008 with the size of the oil slick, to give some sense of the dramatic disparity of scale:


Furthermore, observes Masters, a powerful storm would probably mix the ocean so much that the oil wouldn’t remain at the surface; it would be churned everywhere by massive waves. In this context, the evaporation that fuels the hurricane would scarcely be inhibited.

But what about the second question (which now seems more pertinent)? What would a hurricane do to the slick?

A recent report in USA Today attempts to tackle this question. It isn’t a very good article, though, because it doesn’t have a lot of depth. So let me try to summarize and throw out some thoughts that may help us do better.

Once again, I’d like to interview some scientists about this. But already, some things are apparent–for instance, that the answer is going to have a hell of a lot to do with the particular track of the hurricane.

There certainly does appear to be the potential for stirring up more oil from the deep, as well as driving it towards land. In particular, if a powerful hurricane were to cross the oil slick so that its right front quadrant were over the slick–and if the hurricane’s trajectory was taking it towards land when this occurred–then it seems to me that you might have the worst case scenario. The right front quadrant is the strongest part of the storm, the part that most deeply mixes the ocean, and that drives a powerful wall of water ahead of it–so this scenario truly might give us an oily Katrina.

However, I can only imagine that the chances of a powerful hurricane hitting the oil slick at such an angle, and with such a trajectory, is relatively low in any given hurricane season…just as the probability of any particular place having a hurricane landfall in a given year is pretty low. But still. It might be pretty awful.

I am sorely tempted to go back through my scientist rolodex for Storm World so as to write more on this question….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Hurricanes
MORE ABOUT: Hurricanes, oil spill

Comments (18)

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  1. - Of Hurricanes and Oil | May 20, 2010
  1. moptop

    I wonder if the oil would cause the water to absorb more heat?

  2. Guy

    Either way it’s one huge, awful mess that could have been prevented.

  3. BJM

    Looking at the huge hurricane and relatively tiny slick, I wonder if the hurricane could mix and disperse the slick until the level of oil in the water approached background levels.

  4. There are two other critical questions.

    First: how will the hurricane season affect efforts to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? If the flow has not been stopped before tropical storms start materializing in the Gulf, efforts to stop the flow may be repeatedly disrupted for months.

    Second: how will the hurricane season affect efforts to contain the oil and protect sensitive areas? This is a much broader concern than the possibility of a storm driving some of the oil inland, especially if the well still is gushing oil. Storms could push much more of the oil into the loop current (spreading more of the oil through the keys and up the coast),scatter containment booms, disrupt the movement of people and resources needed for containment efforts, force authorities to divert resources away from containment, and even create new spills — particularly from coastal facilities.

    Ironically, all of these possibilities are more likely this year because of record high sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the tropical Atlantic. The Power Dissipation Index for the hurricane season, a measure of the energy of named storms, roughly tracks SSTs. Among the factors contributing to those high temperatures: rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. And what fuel contributes the largest share of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide? Oil.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    It depends on the direction the storm hits from, and it’s not something you would want to rely upon, but it’s possible that a hurricane could be a good thing. The problem with the Deepwater slick is primarily that it is concentrated in a small area, close to land. If a storm was to break it up and dilute it through a far larger volume of ocean before it hit land, it could potentially reduce the problem considerably. The remaining difficulty with that would be that it would interrupt all the efforts going on to stop the leaks underwater.

    Spread out over enough time, Nature is very much capable of dealing with a little bit of oil. But if a storm was to dump it all on the coast at once, then yes, that would be a problem.

  6. Chris

    So if the hurricane hits the coast, it wouldn’t be raining down oil drops?

  7. Cathy

    Is it possible that the hurricane would be able to suck up some of the oily seawater and give us oily rain if it hits land? That’s far more of a concern to me. Hurricanes don’t just gain energy over warm seawater, they feed and grow off it as well as water evaporates. While oil doesn’t necessarily evaporate the same way, some of its components do mix with air. If an oil-slick powered hurricane hit land, I can see a nasty potential for devastating acid rain.

  8. Guy

    “Nature is very much capable of dealing with a little bit of oil.”

    This isn’t a “little bit of oil.” It is estimated to be millions of gallons of the toxic stuff.


  9. Nullius in Verba

    “This isn’t a “little bit of oil.” It is estimated to be millions of gallons of the toxic stuff.”

    Sigh. I thought somebody might say something like that.

    Yes, it’s millions of gallons, but it’s also only a fraction of the oil that is released into the sea by natural oil seeps. Natural geological formations release tens of millions of gallons of oil into the sea every year. It gets processed and digested naturally by bacteria evolved for the niche.

    The problem, as I say, is that it is concentrated in both time and space. The quantity itself is quite small compared to what the oceans deal with naturally every year.

    It is “a little bit of oil”, but it is in the wrong place. I’m not saying this to try to minimise the problem – it is quite definitely a serious environmental problem and one we need to deal with. But it isn’t the utterly terminal disaster some would like to make it out to be, either.

  10. Nullius in Verba

    “If an oil-slick powered hurricane hit land, I can see a nasty potential for devastating acid rain.”

    Oil isn’t acidic.

  11. Guy

    @NiV #9,

    I did a bit of digging into your claim that, “it’s also only a fraction of the oil that is released into the sea by natural oil seeps”.

    According to the Global Marine Oil Pollution Information, natural oil seeps accounts for “46 per cent of the annual load to the world’s oceans.” Also, life near the natural seeps has had a long time to adapt to it. An oil spill that hits coastal wetlands kills creatures that don’t have the adaptations needed to survive it. The Deepwater Horizon explosion/gushing oil well is unprecedented and will likely impact the region for decades to come. It hurts a lot of ocean based industries; fishing, tourism, etc. To say it’s not a disaster is ignoring the facts.


  12. I believe the crucial question – still on my mind anyway – is whether the accumulated (and now accelerated) oil slick all over the northern Gulf of Mexico is changing the evaporation coefficient of the water surface there. Does anyone KNOW? I’ve been asking that question on this blog since 2007 without anybody seeming to tackle it.

    The one multi-month project to tackle the question (by three Russian ISTC environmental project scientists studying the factors contributing to Hurricane Katrina’s rapid build upon reaching the northern Gulf of Mexico) led to their finding that the (then) microns-thick slick all over the Gulf was retarding evaporation. Concommitent effects they noted included longer heat retention in affected waters including into the night, more rapid heating under sunlight, and generally more elevated temperatures of surface waters as the summer and early autumn hurricane season approached.

    They argued that containment of all leaks should be much more closely constrained, and that new wells should be viewed as a trade-off against human lives and property losses in more destructive hurricanes. Their study and conclusions were removed from public view in 2006… coincidentally just a month before the beginning of oil lease extension hearings in the U.S. Congress.

    I cannot argue convincingly for or against their premise except from a common-sense perspective. But “hard science” can answer the question about evaporative effects, and the heat-retention and gain distinctions between oil-coated waters and clear waters. This is not a matter for debate but rather empirical testing. Too bad the first attempts to do this were “lost” at such a critical time.

  13. Nullius in Verba


    Obviously it’s a disaster – 11 people died, for a start – what I said was that it wasn’t the utterly terminal disaster that some would like to make it out to be.

    “The Deepwater Horizon explosion/gushing oil well is unprecedented and will likely impact the region for decades to come.”

    Unprecedented in what sense? How is it so very different to the Ixtoc I oil well blowout in 1979, say? The one that released 10,000-30,000 barrels per day into the Gulf of Mexico for a total of nine months?

    Have a look at this report on the damage it did. It has an interesting comment (p6) about the effect hurricane Frederick had on the beached oil.

  14. Claudette Porter

    Is a hurricane natures way of dispersing the excess oil which leaks into the ocean? It will be interesting to find out. I was in my house when it was destroyed by Cyclone Larry 2oo6 North Qld, Australia. It was a category 5 Cyclone, which I think is the same as a category 5 Hurricane. There is a great wealth of oil under the Great Barrier Reef which is Heritage Listed but there has been talk of exploration… which I fear could be disastrous if approved by the Australian Government…

  15. Guy

    Interesting video of what the oil is doing to wildlife. Just as interesting BP, is trying to prevent people from investigating the damage.


  16. fatkid

    #14- Twenty years after the Valdez DUI and they are still getting oil on their beaches. Twenty years from now we will still see the aftermath of this, much bigger, spill.

  17. Nullius in Verba


    It has been reported that a mere three years after Ixtoc I was capped, the beaches were effectively clear. It depends on the temperature. In the Arctic, there is little available energy, and life moves more slowly, and is more thinly spread. In the tropical Gulf, things are somewhat different.

    Yes, there are still patches of oil buried in the mud along the coast of Alaska – where it is relatively inaccessible to the oil-eating bacteria. But whether it harms the wildlife in the long term by being there is not known. In the short term, it doesn’t seem to. To the casual eye, the beaches were clear within about ten years of the disaster.

    And in the Gulf of Mexico, it will be difficult to tell, since oil leaks naturally into it from tar seeps, and has done for tens of thousands of years, at least. Oil washes up on beaches there anyway, irrespective of mankind’s activities. How will you know?

    It depends on who you choose to ask. Is the glass half empty, or is it half full?


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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