Uncharted Waters: NOAA Offers Facts on Oil Spill, Hurricane Fusion

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has put together a set of oil spill response fact sheets including one detailing how hurricanes may impact, or be impacted, by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Among the questions NOAA answers in the document are, "What will happen to a hurricane that runs through this oil slick?" and "What will the hurricane do to the oil slick in the Gulf?"

According to the document, if the oil slick remains small in comparison to a typical hurricane's general environment and size (200 to 300 miles), the anticipated impact on the hurricane would be minimal. The oil is not expected to appreciably affect either the intensity or the track of a fully developed tropical storm or hurricane.

The high winds of a hurricane would mix with the sea and "weather" the oil, which could help accelerate the biodegradation process, NOAA notes. The high winds also may well distribute oil over a wider area, but the agency points out that it is difficult to model exactly where the oil may be transported. Because a hurricane's winds rotate counter-clockwise, a hurricane passing to the west of the oil slick could drive oil to the coast, and one passing to the east of the slick could drive oil away from the coast, but many other variables come into play such as the details of the storm's evolution, the wind speed, the size and forward motion, and the storm's overall intensity.

NOAA says the nation is essentially in uncharted waters this hurricane season. The agency notes that while the nation has had experience in the past with hurricanes and oil spills, that "experience has been primarily with oil spills that occurred because of the storm, not from an existing oil slick and an ongoing release of oil from the seafloor. The experience from hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005) was that oil released during the storms became very widely dispersed."

In answer to the question, "Will there be oil in the rain related to a hurricane?" NOAA responds, "No. Hurricanes draw water vapor from a large area, much larger than the area covered by oil, and rain is produced in clouds circulating the hurricane."

To read or download the fact sheet in its entirety, go to www.noaa.gov/factsheets/new%20version/hurricanes_oil.pdf.

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