What will oil do to a Gulf of Mexico hurricane?

Some commenters on CP have asked a similar question.  Meteorologist and former Hurricane Hunter Jeff Masters has the answer on his must-read WunderBlog.  His conclusion:

A tropical cyclone in its formative stage–as either a tropical depression or a tropical storm with 40 mph winds–might be adversely affected if it encountered the Gulf of Mexico oil slick, due to the reduction of evaporation into the storm. However, a full-fledged hurricane would mix the oil into the ocean to such a degree that the storm would probably not see any significant reduction in evaporation. It remains unknown how the reduction of sea spray by oil might affect a hurricane. If the oil slick expands to a much larger size, there might be a significant reduction in strength of the hurricane, if theory of how a reduction of sea spray will decrease a hurricane’s winds is correct.

However, the oil slick is currently Delaware-sized, while a hurricane tends to be Texas-sized, and I doubt that the oil slick at its current size is large enough to have a significant impact on a hurricane’s intensity. The slick is about 60 miles across, and it would take a hurricane about four hours to traverse the spill at a typical hurricane forward speed of 15 mph. Furthermore, the slick is within 50 miles land, and interactions with land will dominate the behavior of a hurricane that gets that close to the coast.

Unfortunately, there is a decent chance that we’ll get a real-world opportunity to see what will happen. June tropical storms tend to form in the Gulf of Mexico, and we’ve been averaging one June storm every two years since 1995. This year, the odds of a June Gulf of Mexico storm are probably a little lower than usual, shear from our lingering El Ni±o may bring wind shear levels a bit above average. I expect there is a 20% chance that we’ll see a June tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico that would interact with the oil spill.

10 Responses to What will oil do to a Gulf of Mexico hurricane?

  1. Ani says:

    This is interesting to me. My first thought was there might be less friction on the water surface which may increase speed slightly. Also I may be wrong but in the last few years IMHO it seems Gulf storms increase right before landfall which I thought may be caused from slightly higher SST.

  2. johna says:

    I think the converse is of concern. What becomes of the oil when a hurricane arrives? Assume BP eventually traps much of the leak in a larger cofferdam structure, and sends a processing barge/boat to separate out oil from gas and water. It would need to be on-station for months, until a plug or relief well was sunk. That will extend the job into hurricane season. Uninterrupted cleanup efforts would then depend on tropical storms avoiding the Gulf. They won’t cooperate.

  3. Richard Brenne says:

    Is anyone concerned that the oil kills vegetation in the bayous of Louisiana, creating more Gulf of Mexico open water at the expense of bayou land, thus making New Orleans especially more vulnerable to hurricane storm surge?



  4. Anyone interested in starting a pool on when the first denialist claims the Gulf gusher was a Good Thing because it will suppress hurricanes?

  5. Abe says:

    My concern is what happens when a storm surge filled with oil washes inland. It would probably help clean out the gulf a tiny bit, and people would be finding residue in the flooded areas for years to come. It’s one thing to have flooding, it’s another to have flooding that’s loaded with crude.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Better to ask what a hurricane is going to do to the oil slick.

    Look at the size differences.

  7. From Peru says:

    By the way, the Main Development Zone (Tropical North Atlantic) is anomausly warm, with widespread anomalies greater than +2ºC.

    See here:

    (home website:RTG_SST_HR experimental analysis )

    If this warmth persist into the hurricane season (and remember the El Niño is fading and there is the possibility for a La Niña in the second half of the year = less wind shear) there will be a severe hurricane season this year.

    Will this year be worse than 2005?

    Time will tell it.

  8. Whatshisname says:

    The Ixtoc I spill of 1979 began only a couple of days into a fairly rock ’em, sock ’em hurricane season (David and Frederic) and apparently came into contact with at least two tropical cyclones — Hurricanes Bob and Henri. Bob formed in the SW Gulf near the spill and became the Gulf’s first July hurricane in 20 years, but it never grew beyond Category One and made landfall near New Orleans with little fanfare. Henri had a promising start as a Cape Verde disturbance near the peak of the season but didn’t become a hurricane until it arrived in the Bay of Campeche. It zigzagged in the oily bay and largely played itself out before drifting north. NOAA blamed its demise on an influx of dry air from Mexico and a non-tropical system off the central coast of Texas. (NOAA also reported the same non-tropical system helped wash the oil off the beaches on the lower Texas coast.)

    Tropical Storm Elena may have also come in contact with some of the oil. It formed in a favorable place in the Central Gulf at the beginning of the season’s peak. However it never became more than a minimal tropical storm before landfall on the Central Texas coastline.

    Tropical Storm Claudette — the one that dropped 43 inches after landfall in S.E. Texas — came in far to the west of Ixtoc I but who knows?

  9. JTMcPhee says:

    Yes indeed, Whatshisname, “who knows?”

    Let’s applaud BP for unlimbering all its big PR guns with ads in local papers inviting the local yucks to volunteer to “help clean up this mess that is all our faults because we all use petroleum products for everything from sex aids to clothespins to, of course, gasoline for your Road Machine and yard blower and hedge trimmer and edger and riding mower (that myth-of-the-yeoman-farmer-fulfilling device) for your 1/4 acre plot of monoculture lawn.”

    Once you are in “volunteer” mode, standing shoulder to shoulder with all those other weepy-eyed tree-hugging sucker-for-an-oily-bird liberals, The Enemy becomes The Sludge, not the sorry shits who “saved” maybe $500K by leaving out a few “fripperies” that no one would miss, under a mile of salt water. One wonders how many millions the “crisis obfuscation experts” are being paid to paper this one over and erase it as a Bad Event from the news cycles and the public awareness.

    And what’s the big deal? This will probably be a net gain for the GDP, in categories as diverse as Hill&Knowlton and vast conspiracies of lawyers and their paralegals, all kinds of “experts,” staff increases for many bureaucracies, and [add your own ill-spill-that-blowouts-no-man-good categories here.] (Notice how the descriptor is slowly morphing from “rig exxplosion” to “oil spill” to the unpredictable-accidental “blowout?” “Sometimes these methane bubbles are just inevitable,” like a nasty fart after a meal of black beans and Tabasco.)

    And so screw a buncha shrimp and copepods and birdies and stuff, that never vote or answer a poll (the new substitute for Jeffersonian democracy,) or go in debt to acquire any consumer products, or answer any campaign contribution mailings.

    In our new human Newthink, this is all about opportunity — to see if coating the oceans with oil film might, in the best tradition of Murphy the Ultimate Engineer, “fix” one problem via total blindness to and ignorance of and unconcern for any “side effects,” like killing off large segments of the unrepresented stakeless stakeholder, The Biomass.

    So with so much else in the world bleeding once and future Real Wealth into the paws and pockets of the predators and parasites amongst us, maybe the question will morph also, from “who knows?” to “who cares?”

  10. Whatshisname says:

    JT, please send a copy of your comment to our governor, Rick Perry, while he is sweating out the approach of this “Act of God.”