Hurricane vs. Oil Slick

By Chris Mooney | May 22, 2010 12:20 pm

100521_Exp_oilEXI’ve just done a Slate piece elaborating on what would happen if a hurricane hit the Gulf oil slick, based upon further research and interviewing. Here’s an excerpt:

Much depends on the angle at which the storm crosses the slick. In the Northern Hemisphere, hurricanes rotate counterclockwise, with the largest storm surge occurring where the winds blow in the direction the storm as a whole is traveling—that’s in front of the eye and off to the right. (Meteorologists worry over a hurricane’s dangerous “right-front quadrant.”) So if a powerful storm approached the slick from the southwest, say, its most potent winds would push the oil forward, instead of sweeping it off to the side and out of the storm’s path. If the storm then plowed into the Gulf Coast, you’d expect an oily landfall.

And how would the slick affect the storm? Not much if at all:

…by the time winds reach hurricane force (greater than 74 mph), they cause so much ocean mixing that any oil slick on the surface would be driven down into the depths and generally broken up. MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel has tested the phenomenon on a small scale using an enclosed tank, half filled with water, with an air rotor at the top capable of generating hurricane force winds. When the rotor turned at high speeds, the surface of the water was torn apart, and the scientists observed no difference in the amount of evaporation that occurred with or without an oily surface film.

It’s even possible that an oil slick could make a powerful hurricane a little stronger. Oil is darker than water, and so it absorbs more sunlight while also blocking evaporation from the sea surface. That means the spill could be trapping heat in one part of the ocean. If a storm passed over and churned up the surface of the water, that potential hurricane energy might then be released.

You can read the full Slate piece here.

Update 9 ET Saturday: This piece is the second most emailed and third most read item on Slate.com right now. Apparently people want to know….

MORE ABOUT: BP, Hurricanes, oil slick, slate
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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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