With the strengthening of Hurricane Alex, today marks the first hurricane of the 2010 season, and the 70th day since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The question on everyone’s mind is without a doubt, “What impact will a hurricane have on the oil spill?”
The short answer is “no one knows,” since a hurricane has never crossed over a major oil spill in recorded history. However, there is no shortage of scientists and experts at NOAA who are making educated predictions. Having read through much of that research, I’ll try to boil it down to a few key points in this week’s Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog (CB2). If you have more to contribute beyond these questions, please voice your comments.
How will Hurricane Alex affect the spill, even though it’s not directly over it?
Alex is creating rough conditions at the Deepwater Horizon site with 6-8 foot waves. Under these conditions, oil cannot be burned off the surface and some vessels cannot operate to their full ability. The 15-25 knot south winds will unfortunately push oil into protected areas that have not seen oil yet, and the 1-2 foot storm surge will push oil further into the marsh. Even this storm is bad news for people in the Gulf.
Can the oil slick change the path or intensity of a hurricane?
Unlikely, but not impossible. Most hurricanes are much larger than the size of the more concentrated spill area. It is not believed that the spill will help or hurt the formation of a storm developing in the Gulf.
What will happen to the oil if a hurricane passes through it?
High winds and rough seas could help accelerate to biodegradation of the oil and possibly clean off oil from shores that have already been effected, but the storm could also make the situation much worse by transporting oil to new areas.
Will the hurricane pull up oil that is below the surface?
Hurricanes can mix water to depths as great as 650 feet. If oil is located in that range, the answer could be yes. However, subsurface plumes are believed to be at much greater depths than that and would unlikely be brought to the surface by a storm.
Will it rain oil?
No. 50%-70% of the oil that can evaporate does so in the first 12 hours (the reason why you can only burn it so close to the source). Hurricanes draw moisture from such a large area of the Gulf that the evaporation very near the source of the spill would be too dispersed among the storm by the time rain comes to land.
Could oil riding on a storm surge be washed inland?
Yes. We can’t estimate if, when, or how bad this would be, but it is a possibility that oil on the surface could ride a storm surge inland to residential areas and additional protected marshlands. I try not to think about this.
What worries you the most?
Other than a hurricane pushing oil up onto the coast of my home state of Florida, I worry about the thousands of vessels and people responding to the spill having to shut down and relocate if they’re in a hurricane’s forecast cone. Could the relief wells that we need so badly get pushed back into September? If a storm shuts down the operation, then absolutely.
Website of the Week: NY Times Oil Tracker
This is the best source I’ve found for tracking where oil is in the Gulf, where it has made landfall, effects on wildlife, and what’s being done about the leak. I have it bookmarked.
Preparedness Tip of the Week
Add a new name to your mobile phone address book named “ICE” (in case of emergency) and store your emergency contact as the number. Many first responders are trained to look for this if you are in an accident. I also write “ICE (610)xxx-xxxx” in Sharpie on the back of my driver’s license for the same reason.
Question of the Week
Have you decided not to travel to a Gulf beach (or know someone who has) due to the oil spill?
Factoid About Me
A few years back I co-founded America’s Emergency Network (AEN) with former National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield and CBS’s Bryan Norcross to establish satellite video system for emergency press briefings. It’s still in use today at the NHC. Think of that when you see director Bill Read on TV this summer!
Read Last Week’s CB2: Oil Spill Heroes and a Personal Update.
About Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.