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Oil’s Effect on Hurricanes – A Case of the Tail Wagging the Dog?
Hurricanes are born over warm ocean waters. This warmth provides the fuel required to initiate and maintain a hurricane’s wind circulation, and a hurricane will begin dissipating as soon as it is cut off from warm waters. In turn, the effects of a hurricane are also felt by the ocean: winds whip up huge waves that make for dangerous marine and coastal conditions. These contribute to storm surge and flooding at the coast. Indeed, they stir the ocean so much that cooler water from below rises to the surface leaving behind the relatively cool traces of hurricane tracks, which remain visible for days afterwards in thermal satellite imagery. Given all of these factors, a change to the ocean’s surface as significant as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico raises a variety of questions about hurricanes. Will the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico be different now that oil has surfaced and begun spreading? In particular, will the oil on the surface affect individual storms as they approach the area?
There are two possible ways that an oil slick might directly affect hurricanes: through changes to the initial hurricane formation or through changes to a hurricane that has already formed. Both processes result from the tendency that oil would have to cut the atmosphere off from the underlying ocean. Crude oil is light and floats in water, then tends to spread out. A surface covered with oil would prevent water from evaporating. In addition, because oil is more viscous than water, it does not easily form ripples when the wind blows. Ripples represent the first stage in the development of high seas, which later contribute to storm surge, ocean swell, and high surf.
What are the chances that the Gulf oil spill will form a blanket over the ocean surface, cutting off evaporation and preventing hurricane formation? In reality, the effect is likely to be minimal. The current spill, while historic in extent, covers just a small portion (indee about 3%) of the Gulf.4 If a group of thunderstorms that might otherwise grow into a hurricane did happen to pass directly over the spill, development could theoretically stall as storm cells are cut off from the water surface. But even much of the spill area remains patchy.5
A possible opposite effect to the one described above relies on the possibility that the oil slick will actually further heat the already warm waters in the area, since the black oil will absorb sunlight and will also serve to prevent evaporative cooling to balance the solar heating.6 Under this scenario, the warmer surface could actually encourage hurricane formation once the oil disperses and evaporation begins again, although the total additional warming is likely to be quite small.
The oil, which is gushing out of the well a mile below the surface, is mixing with chemical dispersants and water. What arrives at the surface is fundamentally different from crude oil spilled from a tanker. This warm dilute mixture could still contribute to evaporation—and storm development. Any retarding effect would be only on weak thunderstorms; a storm that has already developed gale force winds would churn the ocean so much that the oil would have little effect.
Similarly, if an already-developed storm passed over the spill, the effects of the oil would likely be minimal. The winds even at the edge of the storm would easily whip the seas into such a frenzy that the oil would mix with the ocean below, exposing enough water to the surface that evaporation could take place and continue supplying fuel to the storm.
Thus, in the end, while possible effects of this oil spill on a tropical storm or on the hurricane season overall is an interesting question, the implications are in fact small. Far more important are the effects that a hurricane would have on the spilled oil and surrounding region.
Originally posted by Stewie
I think this is a great thread, and a great question.
OZ, give us some "meteorological" science, so that we don't delve into paranoid delusions about what might happen.
Give us the science.