Dr. Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, on hurricanes & oil

05/27/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Tuesday marks the start of hurricane season, and as you’ve heard, climate scientists say numerous factors are coming together to make for a busy one this time around.

With millions of gallons of oil hemorrhaging into the Gulf each day, forecasters are at a loss as to what all that crude might do to an approaching storm, and how the coast would fare.

Dr. Jeff Masters is co-founder and director of meteorology for Weather Underground. He recently wrote about oil and hurricane in his blog. In an interview with WMNF, he said that in a year like this, the two will likely cross paths.

Every single above-active year, there has been a tropical storm or hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. So with their forecast that we'll have an above-active year this year, we can think it's very likely that there's going to be a tropical storm interacting with that oil spill. And in fact, in ninety-five percent of above-active years, there have been two or more such storms in the Gulf of Mexico. So I think we're going to have one, very likely two or more, tropical storms or hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season this year. And we will get a chance to see in the real world what's going to happen.

Q. You wrote that oil in the Gulf might be a warming agent. How might that affect the behavior of storms?

I don't think it's going to affect it currently, because it's not covering a big enough part of the Gulf of Mexico to do that. But there is the potential that if we get an increased coverage in coming weeks or months, that it will cover a big enough part of the Gulf of Mexico to cause an impact. And there are two ways it could do that; number one is since the oil slick will reduce the amount of evaporation, then that will tend to keep the heat into the ocean, making it warm up. And the other factor is that the oil seems to be darker, and will absorb heat energy as well. So that could heat up the oceans.

One thing that would tend to decrease a storm's strength is the fact, okay, it does decrease the amount of evaporation from a storm, and that evaporation is key for powering the storm. But once you get the winds above about 40 miles per hour, that's not going to be a factor, because the oil slick is going to break up. You're going to start having water at the surface instead of oil, and then the evaporation is going to go up into the storm and help intensify it. So once the winds get up above there, all the heat that's been stored in the ocean due to the fact that it had all oil on top of it for weeks or months, is going to be available to the hurricane to intensify it.

Q. What happens if a storm washes through an oil patch in the Gulf?

Yeah; that's my major concern; it's going to take that oil and distribute it along a long stretch of ocean, and potentially we'll get far greater portions of the coast fouled by oil, just because it will have been transported great distances. Now, it will dilute the oil to some extent, so we won't get quite as much oil as for instance, what Louisiana is seeing, but it will be a problem for areas of the coast that haven't already seen oil.

Q. Right. And you wrote that mangroves and rocky beaches in particular will see the worst of it.

Well, if you've already been fouled by oil, yes. If you're a mangrove, or you're a rocky beach, the oil's going to get down in those crevices and roots and stay there, and resist being cleaned out by the wave action of a storm. But if you're a nice, sandy beach, then the wave action of a storm could potentially take the oil off the beach. And this in fact what we observed in a case during the great Ixtoc blowout in 1979, when the beaches of south Texas got hit with oil, and a storm came through and cleaned ninety percent of the oil off.

Q. Can you please talk a little more about the Ixtoc spill, and what happens when storms and oil interacted there?

Sure. Well, what happened with that oil spill is, it was the greatest accidental oil spill in history, about ten times bigger than our current spill, supposedly. And the oil was transported hundreds of miles to the north, up to the beaches of south Texas, where, over a period of about three weeks, the beaches on Padre Island got moderately or heavily oiled. But in mid-September, a hurricane blew up from the Gulf of Mexico, category one hurricane. It didn't actually hit the coast, but the swells from the hurricane went over the barrier islands, washing a lot of the oil into the estuaries behind. And there were also strong winds at that time from a separate storm that helped that wave action wash the oil off the beaches as well.

So about ninety percent of the oil got washed off the beaches, and wound up in the estuaries. And it turned out that the concentration of the oil was low enough that NOAA said there was not a significant impact to the ecosystems there, in the lagoons and the estuaries behind the barrier islands. So that gives us some hope that if a big storm does come through, an already soiled beach is going to benefit from the action of the waves on the oil.

Q. All right, so we've learned something from the Ixtoc blowout, which happened in 1978 in the Yucatan. What did we learn from Katrina, if anything?

Yeah, well, we had a couple of major oil spills during Katrina. Actually, about eight million gallons, which is about two-thirds of what the Exxon Valdez disaster put into the ocean, was spilled during Katrina. And a couple of these spills occurred in marshlands, where oil tanks ruptured, and the storm surge carried the oil into the marshlands. And in one of these cases, the marshlands were burned a few weeks after the hurricane, and fairly successfully. The burning got rid of about eighty or ninety percent of the oil fouling the vegetation, and by six months later the marshland had mostly recovered, as far as the amount of greenery there. However, a lot of the oil still stayed down in the roots of the vegetation, and impacted the crab life, and then the wildlife that feeds on the crabs, that were still there.

Q. The governor's hurricane conference wrapped up on Fort Lauderdale today. Oil was reportedly brought up throughout, and I think some were stressing storm preparedness, and treating oil as something that's perhaps secondary in terms of hurricane response. Do you agree?

*I think they were trying to reduce people's fear about the oil, but I think they probably should have discussed it more, because it is on people's minds. It's a great worry, and I think we need to talk frankly about — mostly, we don't know what's going to happen. I mean, we do have a few experiences with it, but we need to acknowledge people's concerns and say, “Well, yeah; those are valid; we do need to be concerned with this.”*

More WMNF coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill:

Deepwater Horizon: An international perspective

Greg Palast on BP (part one)

Chemical oil dispersants may harm environment

Behind "Drill, Baby, Drill"

Sen Bill Nelson visits oil spill incident command post in St Pete

Two state legislators urge special session on drilling ban

Hillsborough BOCC opposes expanded oil drilling

Castor says BP thinks oil leak could be up to 60 thousand barrels per day

Congressional committee grills rig execs

meets with BP in St Pete on oil disaster

Gulf Restoration Network responds to BP oil disaster

Sink still wants answers from BP on oil disaster

The suffering begins on the Gulf Coast

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