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What would a hurricane do to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:57 PM GMT on May 26, 2010

Hurricane season is upon us next week, and the Deepwater Horizon blowout is still spewing a geyser of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. With this year's hurricane season likely to be a severe one, with much above average numbers of hurricanes and intense hurricanes, we have the unwholesome prospect of a hurricane churning through the largest accidental oil spill in history. A hurricane has never passed over a sizable oil spill before, so there are a lot of unknowns about what might happen. The closest call came in 1979, after the greatest accidental oil spill in history, the massive Ixtoc I blowout. That disaster dumped 3 million barrels (126 million gallons) of oil into the Southern Gulf of Mexico between June 1979 and March 1980. Category 1 Hurricane Henri passed just north of the main portion of the oil spill on September 16 and 17, generating 15 foot seas and southwest winds of 15 - 25 knots over the spill region on the 16th. Interestingly, the NOAA/AOML report on the spill found that the winds did not blow long enough or strongly enough to control the direction of oil flow, as evidenced by the fact that the wind direction was often 180° to the direction of plume flow. The main impact of the wind was to dilute the oil and weather it, converting it to a thick "mousse".

Oil and beaches
During the Ixtoc spill, prevailing currents circulating clockwise from the blowout carried a 60-mile by 70-mile patch of sheen containing a 300 foot by 500 foot patch of heavy crude 900 miles to the South Texas coast. On August 6, 1979, tarballs from the spill impacted a 17 mile stretch of Texas beach. Mousse patches impacted the shoreline north of Port Mansfield Channel on August 15 and again on August 18. On August 24, mousse impacted shoreline south of Aransas Pass. By August 26, most of North Padre Island was covered with moderate amounts of oil. By September 1, all of the south Texas coast had been impacted by oil. However, Hurricane Henri formed in the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche on September 17 - 18. At the same time, a strong non-tropical low pressure system formed along the Texas coast, bringing gale-force winds and rainfall amounts in excess of ten inches to the coast. The combination of swells from Hurricane Henri and wind-driven waves from the non-tropical low pressure system scoured the oiled beaches of over 90% of their oil (Gundlach et al., 1981). The oil washed over the barrier islands into the estuaries behind them, and much of it sank to the bottom of the ocean. According to NOAA, impacts to the estuaries were minor. However, Payne and McNabb (1984) noted that selected regions of the coast, most of the beached oil was heavily resistant to transport during storms. Oil/sediment mats were ultimately covered by clean sand, but the oil/sediment mats were re-exposed and washed into the lagoon behind the barrier islands one year later when Category 3 Hurricane Allen battered the coast. No transport of the oil/sediment mats from the lagoon bottom was observed in the 3-year period following Hurricane Allen.

So, the Ixtoc blowout experience shows us that if a sandy beach is already fouled by oil, a hurricane can help clean up the mess. However, the situation is different along shores with marshlands, where the many shoreline plants offer crevices and tangled roots for the oil to accumulate in. A hurricane will help scour some of the oil out of marshlands, but the majority of it will probably remain stuck. This is also true of rocky beaches. Rocky shores fouled by the great Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 have been pounded by many hurricane-strength storms over the years, but these storms were not able to clean the beaches of oil like Hurricane Henri did for Texas' beaches in 1979.

Transport of oil by hurricanes
Shores that are already fouled by oil will probably benefit from a hurricane, but the oil cleaned off of those shores then becomes someone else's problem. The strong winds and powerful ocean currents that a hurricane's winds drive will bring oil to large stretches of coast that otherwise would not have gotten oil. This is my chief concern regarding a hurricane moving through the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Consider the case of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. The ill-fated tanker split open in Prince William Sound on March 24, and oil spill response crews were initially able to contain the spill behind booms and make good progress removing it. However, two days later, a powerful Gulf of Alaska storm with 70 mph winds roared through, overwhelming the containment booms and distributing the oil along a 90-mile stretch of coast. The oil went on to foul over 400 miles of Alaska coast, a far larger disaster than would have occurred than if the storm had not passed by. Similarly, a hurricane moving through the Gulf of Mexico spill will very likely make the disaster much worse, spreading out the oil over a larger region, and bringing the oil to shores that otherwise might not have seen oil. It is true that the oil will be diluted some by being spread out over a larger area, so some shores will not see a substantial oiling. But overall, a hurricane passing through the oil spill is likely to result in much higher damage to the coast.

I expect that during the peak portion of hurricane season (August - October), the clockwise-rotating eddy that is attempting to cut off from the Loop Current this week will be fully separated from the Loop Current. The separation of this eddy will substantially reduce the possibility that significant amounts of oil will reach the Florida Keys and Southeast U.S. coast, since the Loop Current will be much farther south, flowing more due east towards the Keys from the Yucatan Channel. Oil moving southwards from the spill location due to a hurricane's winds will tend to get trapped in the 250-mile wide eddy, potentially covering most of the surface of the eddy with oil. Thus we might have a 250-mile wide spinning oil slick in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico for days or weeks after a hurricane. This could potentially have a significant warming effect on the Gulf waters, since the oil is dark and will absorb sunlight, and the oil will prevent evaporation from cooling the waters underneath it. Since Loop Current eddies contain a large amount of very warm water that extend to great depth, they often act as high-octane fuel for hurricanes that pass over. The rapid intensification of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were both aided by the passage of those storms over Loop Current eddies. Thus the warming of the Loop Current Eddy by oil pulled into it by a passing hurricane or tropical storm could lead to explosive intensification of the next hurricane that passes over the eddy.

The Loop Current Eddy will move slowly westwards toward Texas at about 4 miles per day after it fully cuts off. When it reaches the shallow waters near the Texas coast in early 2011, the eddy will turn northwards and gradually dissipate, By then, I expect that the vast majority of the oil in the eddy will have dispersed, sunk, or evaporated.

Storm surge and oil
One of the more unnerving prospects to consider if a hurricane hits the oil spill is what the hurricane's storm surge might do with the oil/dispersant mixture. The foul mix would ride inland on top of the surge, potentially fouling residential areas and hundreds of square miles of sensitive ecosystems with the toxic stew. The impacts of the oil and dispersant on vegetation may be too low to cause significant damage, since the hurricane would dilute the mixture with a large amount of sea water, and wash much of the toxic brew off the vegetation with heavy rain. We do have some limited experience with oil spills during Hurricane Katrina's storm surge to shed light on the subject. Katrina's storm surge caused over 8 million gallons of oil to spill into the storm surge waters. The largest spill occurred when the storm surge hit the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. According to Santella et al. (2010), The refinery was inundated with 12 feet of water, and a partially filled 250,000-barrel above ground storage tank was dislodged and ruptured, releasing 25,100 barrels (1.05 million gallons) of mixed crude oil. Dikes surrounding the oil tanks at the refinery were flooded and breached and oil from the spill covered a residential area of approximately one square mile affecting approximately 1,800 homes. Front-end loaders were needed to remove the oily sediments from the area. A class action lawsuit resulted from the spill, ending in a $330 million settlement with a buy-out of properties closest to the spill and graded compensation in a larger zone. Katrina also caused a 139,000-gallon crude oil leak from a 20-inch pipeline at Shell Nairn Pipeline Company in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. Approximately 10,500 gallons of the spill reached the shoreline and coastal marshes, and only 10,700 gallons were recovered. This release resulted in a $5.5 million class action settlement to nearby property owners (http://www.nairnclaims.com). I haven't been able to find any information on how the marshlands fared after getting oiled by this spill.

Katrina's storm surge also destroyed an oil tank at Chevron's Empire facility, releasing oil into a retention pond in a region surrounded by marshland. Three and half weeks later, Hurricane Rita's storm surge hit the oily mess in the retention pond, washing 4,000 - 8,000 gallons of oil into nearby marshlands, which were heavily or moderately oiled. According to the EPA and Merten et al. (2008), the oiled marshlands were set on fire six weeks after the spill, resulting in 80-90% removal of the oil and contaminated vegetation. The marshland recovered fairly quickly, as seen in aerial photos taken five months after the burn (Figure 1)--though oil still remained in the roots, affecting burrowing crabs and the wildlife that feed on them. So, oiled marshes can recover somewhat from a storm-surge driven oiling, but it is uncertain if burning could be successfully used to restore a 100+ square mile region of marshland oiled by the storm surge from a major hurricane. Another big unknown is how toxic BP's dispersants might be to the vegetation.

Figure 1. Upper left: oiled marshlands as seen on October 10, 2005, near Chevron's Empire facility, after the storm surges of Katrina and Rita. Right: The marshlands on March 16, 2006, five months after the controlled burn. The marshlands had largely recovered. Bottom: the controlled burn in progress (October 12, 2005.) Image credit: Merten, A.A., Henry, C., and J. Michel, 2008, Decision-making process to use in-situ burning to restore an oiled intermediate marsh following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 2008 International Oil Spill Conference.

Wind and oil
The winds from a hurricane hurl ocean sea spray miles inland, often causing major defoliation and tree damage far beyond where the storm surge penetrates. For example, Category 2 Hurricane Bob of 1991 blew sea spray inland 4 miles (7 km) inland over Cape Cod. The salt deposited defoliated nearly all the deciduous trees along the coast. Kerr, 2000 document the case of Category 2 Typhoon Gay of November 23, 1992, which hit the 15-km wide island of Guam with 95 - 100 mph winds. Interaction with another typhoon disrupted Gay's thunderstorm activity, resulting in a nearly rainless typhoon for Guam. As a result, heavy amounts of salt coated the entire island, resulting in nearly complete defoliation. The salt didn't actually kill many plants, and the island re-greened within a year. The Category 3 New England Hurricane of 1938 was able to cause salt damage to trees as far as 45 miles inland, due to wind-blown sea spray. Thus we can anticipate that a hurricane passing over the oil spill will be able to hurl oil and toxic dispersants many miles inland during landfall. In regions where little rain falls, the concentrations of the oil and dispersants may be a problem. Again, we have no experience with this sort of situation, so the potential risks are unknown.

Rain and oil
Hurricanes evaporate huge amounts of water from the ocean and convert it to rain. In general, we do not need to worry about oil dissolving into the rain, since the oil and water don't mix. Furthermore, about 50-70% of the oil that is going to evaporate from the spill does so in the first 12 hours that the oil reaches the surface, so the volatile oil compounds that could potentially get dissolved into rain water won't be around. Hurricanes are known to carry sea salt and microscopic marine plankton hundreds of miles inland, since the strong updrafts of the storm can put these substances high in the troposphere where they can be carried far inland as the hurricane makes landfall. The Eastern Pacific's Hurricane Nora of 1997, whose remnants passed over Southern California, brought traces of sea salt and marine microorganisms to clouds over the central U.S. similarly, we can expect any landfalling hurricanes that pass over the oil spill to pick up traces of Gulf of Mexico crude and transport it hundreds of miles inland. However, I doubt that these traces would be detectable in rainwater except by laboratory analysis, and would not cause any harm to plants or animals.

Lightning and oil
Could a lightning strike from a hurricane ignite oil from the spill, and the hurricane's winds hurl the flaming oil inland, creating a fiery maelstrom of water, wind, and flame? This would make a great scene in a typical bad Hollywood disaster movie, but it's not going to happen with the universe's current laws of physics. Lightning could set an oil slick on fire, in regions where the oil is most dense and very fresh. About 50-70% of the evaporation of oil's most flammable volatile compounds occurs in the first 12 hours after release, so fresh oil is the most likely to ignite. However, the winds of a hurricane are so fierce that any surface oil slick of flaming oil would quickly be disrupted and doused by wave action and sea spray. Heavy rain would further dampen any lightning-caused oil slick fires.

Bringing oil at depth to the surface
Hurricanes act like huge blenders that plow through the ocean, thoroughly mixing surface waters to depths as great as 200 meters (650 feet), and pulling waters from depth to the surface. Thus if sub-surface plumes of oil are located within 200 meters of the surface, a hurricane could potentially bring them to the surface. However, the huge sub-surface plumes of oil found by the research vessel Pelican were at depths of 2300 - 4200 feet, and a hurricane will not affect the ocean circulation at those depths.

Comparisons of the Deepwater Horizon blowout with Exxon Valdez
One footnote to consider when comparing the Deepwater Horizon blowout to the disastrous March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez spill: the amount of oil spilled in that disaster is usually quoted as 11 million gallons (260,000 barrels.) However, this is the number given by Exxon Mobil, and independent assessments by the State of Alaska came up with a much higher figure--24 to 36 million gallons, with state investigators stressing that the lower number was very unlikely. I'd be inclined to believe Exxon grossly understated the actual severity of the spill, much like BP is attempting to do with the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Steven Wereley, an associate professor at Purdue University, used a computer analysis (particle image velocimetry) to arrive at a rate of 95,000 barrels (4 million gallons) per day since the April 20 blowout, nearly 20 times greater than the 5,000 barrel a day estimate BP and government scientists have been citing. If he is correct, and the State of Alaska's figures on the Exxon Valdez disaster are correct, the Deepwater Horizon blowout so far has spilled five times the oil Exxon Valdez did.

Gundlach, E.R., Finkelstein, K.J., and J.L. Sadd, "Impact and Persistence of Ixtoc I Oil on the South Texas Coast", Proceedings: 1981 Oil Spill Conference (Prevention, Behavior, Control, Cleanup) March 2-5, 1981, Atlanta, GA. p 477-485.

Kerr, A.M., 2000, "Defoliation of an island (Guam, Mariana
Archipelago, Western Pacific Ocean) following a saltspray-laden
dry typhoon," Journal of Tropical Ecology 16:895901.

Merten, A.A., Henry, C., and J. Michel, 2008, Decision-making process to use in-situ burning to restore an oiled intermediate marsh following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 2008 International Oil Spill Conference.

Payne, J.R. and D. McNabb, Jr., "Weathering of Petroleum in the Marine Environment", Marine Technology Society Journal 18, 3, Third Quarter 1984.

Santella, N., Steinberg, L.J., and H. Sengul, 2010,Petroleum and Hazardous Material Releases from Industrial Facilities Associated with Hurricane Katrina, Risk Analyis, Volume 30, Issue 4, Pages 635-649, Published Online: 16 Mar 2010

I've been focused more on the oil spill, and will have just a limited discussion of (90L) off the South Carolina coast. The storm has changed little over the past 24 hours, and doesn't have time to develop into a subtropical storm, before an approaching trough of low pressure pulls the system out to sea Thursday and Friday. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is giving 90L a less than 10% chance of developing into a depression or tropical/subtropical storm, and anticipates not writing any more special advisories on 90L. There presently isn't much to be concerned with about this storm, though Bermuda may get more heavy rain and high seas from the storm late this week as it moves out to sea. Wunderbloggers Weather456 and StormW have more on 90L.

Central American disturbance
An area of disturbed weather has developed just off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The disturbance will bring heavy rains to Central America during the remainder of the week, potentially bringing serious flooding rains to portions of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. There is the potential for disturbed weather accompanying the disturbance to push into the Western Caribbean early next week and pose a threat to develop into a tropical depression. While there is high wind shear over the northern Caribbean, shear should be low enough to allow development should the disturbance stay in the southern reaches of the Caribbean. Any storm that develops in the Caribbean in the coming week would get steered to the northeast and will not pose a threat to the Gulf of Mexico.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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Quoting Jeff9641:

Not a chance as 90E is to far west to make it back to the Caribbean, more likely scenorio is Bay of Campeche.
i agree
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290. IKE
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1100 AM PDT WED MAY 26 2010





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287. IKE
Quoting Hurricanes101:

don't make them upset, you might make them cry

LOL. Can't squeeze blood out of a turnip.
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Quoting Floodman:
I love it when the term **poof** is used; everytime someone says **poof** a tropical wave develops in Africa...LOL

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284. unf97
It is a gorgeous day here with sunny skies in Jax as we are getting the nice northwesterly dry airflow on the back side of 90L's circulation. There is virtually no humidity in the air today and temp currently at the ponderosa at 83.1 degrees.
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Quoting Jeff9641:

Not a chance as 90E is to far west to make it back to the Caribbean, more likely scenorio is Bay of Campeche.

Actually until 90E consolidates more we have no clue where it will actually form, so all bets are off
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Is it headed west?

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280. DEKRE
For people who actually ike to have technical information
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Quoting SomeRandomTexan:

You are exactly right! Government should do what it does best... GOVERN and nothing more.

What happens though is we have Liberals who want government involved in every portion of their life. They blame government for everything that happens (when its Conservatives in office)

What I was saying was mostly satirical...

Natural disasters are not governments fault either last I checked. Nor, bank failures.

Liberals...hmmm...I forgot conservatives are always unjustly blamed for everything. They never do anything wrong. Thanks for reminding me...
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Quoting IKE:

I don't see Alex anytime soon.

don't make them upset, you might make them cry
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I love it when the term **poof** is used; everytime someone says **poof** a tropical wave develops in Africa...LOL
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274. IKE
Quoting Jeff9641:
Who is JFV on here is he FIU now?

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272. IKE
Quoting Jeff9641:

I don't think much will occur in the Caribbean or gulf but associated moisture will have a impact on our weather this weekend IKE. Also models are having a hard time locating a true center for 90E.

I don't see Alex anytime soon.
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Quoting Jeff9641:

I promise you things will start to get active across Florida tomorrow. The steering for storms tomorrow across C FL will be to the east so you may miss out tomorrow.

QPF 48 totals:

Zero 1+ inch totals thurs-sat morning...
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GFDL 12z redevelops 90E in the Caribbean and the HWRF turns it into a hurricane in the EPAC. Until 90E can sort itself out the models won't have a good grasp on everything.
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266. IKE
Quoting FIU2010:

which doesn't really mean much, ike.. a defective run.

Then they're all having defective runs...because I don't see much in the Atlantic for the next 7-10 days.

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why is it a defective run?

cuz it shows no development?

That makes no sense
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Western side, 90L's circulation

Wilmington, Base Reflectivity 0.50 Degree Elevation Range 248 NMI

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Looks like a very busy weekend for the world's most beautiful beaches!

Survey: Oil spill not affecting most Florida Gulf Coast vacation plans — yet
Quoting DestinJeff:
meanwhile, the "most beautiful beaches in the World" remain just that ...

come on down, folks; tell your friends and neighbors that the sugar is white and the water is warm.

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259. IKE
12Z CMC.....nothing much.
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Quoting FIU2010:

reported and flagged, that's what you get for not speaking in a diplomatic tone in here, mija. learn the language and stop acting so despiteful towards it, all because YOU do not comprehend it.

Como se dice *poof* bato?
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253. IKE
12Z GFS.
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252. MahFL
The mid level shear appears to be absolutely zero over 90L.

Mid level shear
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Quoting Levi32:
850mb vorticity associated with 90L is increasing as it has finally formed a tight surface center. Wind shear is also down to 5-10 knots. If it had an extra day to sit there, we would likely have a classifiable system when it's all said and done, but indications are that 90L does not have enough time to become organized enough to be classified.

Thanks, you're the first one to not say "90L is dead and never had a chance you're dumb if you think it did" or something to that effect.
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248. JRRP
here in santo domingo has not stopped raining
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246. MahFL
90 L is stationary, I guess waiting for the trough.

To seal the well, I read that they need about 5000 ft of heavy mud to balance the pressure.
Then a concrete plug.
The well is one of the biggest they have found in the GOM, with billions of gallons of oil in it.
The mud is not actually mud, its a synthetic compound they use, it's just still called mud or drilling mud.
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in my area,per the NWS GPF map not alot of precip coverage for the next 4-5 days,begining next week looks like a front could stall to the north of FL and might break down the ridge over the SE,which would bring a purely tropical airmass over the Eastern GOM and FL peninsula!!!!In other words,not expecting widespread coverage until next week...
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Quoting indianrivguy:

Concrete generally speaking, has an aggregate in it to control cracking/shrinkage and add strength. The cement that the drillers are using is a slurry without aggregate that facilitates pumping and travel throug

As a water driller, when we had to deal with salt water.. artesian salt water, we had to use type II portland cement.. it still hardened with the salt contamination. It has the same consistency as drillers mud.. bentonite and can have a heavy specific gravity which enables it to overcome the intrusive pressure from the stratum.

Thanks IRG. I was just wondering if that could be a possible solution. If they can pour cement at that depth, they should be able to pour concrete.
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243. DEKRE
Quoting SQUAWK:
Pat, I have a question for you. When they say they pour cement into the well is it the same or similar to concrete, or is it something very different, like their term "mud?"

The cement used is basically the same as concrete, that is if you add stones to the cement it becomes concrete.
In normal situations, they tend to use a foamed up version of cement because it is more elastic and tends less to develope cracks - but is is not as strong. So, what they are going to use in this case, I don't know, probably solid cement, perhaps finishing with foamed to close any cracks
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So far this year in Sarasota:more of a westerly flow,which would favor a negative NAO pattern,IMO
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