Health & Science

Oil Spill Adds New Anxiety to Hurricane Season

Hurricane season begins tomorrow. The federal government expects 8 to 14 hurricanes this summer, when the average is only 6. Adding to the anxiety is the question of what happens if a hurricane hits the oil spill? Carrie Feibel takes a look into what might happen when a natural disaster crosses paths with a man-made disaster.

The prospect of a hurricane slamming through the oil slick is not a pretty one. Dr. Jane Lubchencho leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“If it makes landfall, some place on the gulf coast, it is possible that some of the oil that is at the surface might be transported through storm surge on the coastal area as high up as the storm surge goes.”

But a lot depends on the storm’s path. John Nielsen-Gammon is the Texas State Climatologist. He says that during the peak months of August and September, hurricanes enter the Gulf from the south, or over the Florida straits.

NOAA May 25th, 2010 image of oil spill“Those two paths sort of cross right in the middle near where the leak is. So that part of the coast is probably the most likely spot along the Gulf of Mexico coast for a hurricane to actually make landfall.”

But will that landfall be an oily one? It might be if the storm passes to the west of the oil spill. The spinning winds of a hurricane are strongest on its right-front quadrant, and they would push the oil slick toward the shore. Nielsen-Gammon says it would be better if the storm passes farther east.

“If the hurricane was on the east side, the winds are going to tend to be blowing the oil back out to sea, so it actually reduces the chances of oil making it to shore.”

It’s not even clear if a hurricane would necessarily be a bad thing. In 1979, after the infamous Ixtoc blowout off Mexico, a storm helped scrub and scatter the residual oil from Texas beaches.

Anna Armitage is a coastal ecologist at Texas A&M in Galveston.

“It could break up the oil slick which would help disperse it as well as increase evaporation and natural biodegradation processes. So the truth is nobody really knows, it could be positive, it could be negative, it could be neutral.”

But an unfortunate truth about hurricanes is that if they hit anywhere that’s developed, they usually cause mess and pollution. After Hurricane Ike, half a million gallons of crude spilled from punctured pipelines, toppled platforms and tanks. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate says that after landfall, any oil from this particular spill might not be the obvious culprit.

“Unless we have a large deposit of oil, we may not be able to differentiate between what’s leaking out of the vehicles, the tank farms, the overturned boats, the septic tanks, the farm pesticides and everything else that gets churned up in storm surge and deposited inland.”

All the experts stress that the important thing is getting as much oil cleaned up as possible before a hurricane arrives. From the KUHF Health, Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

For more information, visit:

Hurricanes and Oil Spill Fact Sheet:

Hurricane Season 2010 forecast: