Oil Spill Nightmare On The Horizon: Hurricanes

Storm season brings unpredictable new threats to crippled Gulf

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After facing a president’s wrath today over a drilling operation gone catastrophically awry, British Petroleum now has only two weeks before Mother Nature’s annual hurricane season arrives in the Gulf of Mexico.

And mama is particularly high strung this year, say meteorologists, who predict worse-than-usual storm activity from June through November, when the season ends. The powerful storms could savage BP’s efforts to stop the spill and clean up the many millions of gallons of spilled oil. As for the oil itself—spread from ocean floor to surface across a Delaware-sized area—churning hurricane winds could do things no one can predict, although some are trying New York Times look at the hurricane connection>. According to a report in Reuters:

"If a storm comes into this situation it could vastly complicate everything," said Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald.

"All efforts on the shoreline and at sea, the booms and structures and rigs involved in clean-up and containment, could stop working."

As thousands of spill responders gird for a clean-up that could last for months or years after the leaking well is capped, weather and ocean currents are emerging as major unknowns, raising anxiety levels, economic and environmental stakes in the Gulf as storm season nears.

Compounding the uncertainty is how little research has been done on how storms affect oil spills. Some believe storm surges may help disperse the oil off shore or break down the slick. Other research suggests the oil slick itself could keep storms from gathering strength.

As to the environmental damage caused so far by this 3-week-old spill, it is unlike any major spill previously documented. The visual damage—such as oil-soaked animals and shorelines—is slight, but it’s the unseen destruction that worries environmentalists.

Meanwhile, BP continues having no success in slowing, much less stopping, the spill which flows unrestricted at a rate that has surpassed the total volume of oil spilled in the Exxon Valez disaster 21 years ago. As a consequence, President Obama has sent space and weapons experts to the Gulf to help out.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.