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Today's Top News
Storm Warning for Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Clean-Up
Specialists working to contain BP disaster dealt new blow by opening of Gulf of Mexico hurricane season
The thousands of oil and ocean specialists working to contain the Deepwater Horizon disaster have a new potential problem to contend with: the official opening yesterday of the Gulf of Mexico hurricane season.
In keeping with the unfolding nature of the crisis, where bad news has been compounded by yet more bad news, 2010 promises to be a busy hurricane season.
In the past few years the storms have been limited as a result of the giant weather pattern known as El Niño, but that is now subsiding.
Weather forecasters at Colorado State University predict an unusually high number of named storms – thunderstorms with a clear circular motion and wind speeds of at least 40mph. They expect 15 named storms, eight of which could be hurricane strength (at least 74mph).
Oceanographers are now looking at the likely impact of storms on the Gulf clean-up operation. For a start, the current efforts to contain and extract oil from the sea's surface are likely to be disrupted.
The more than 500 boats working around the stricken oil well would have to turn back to shore, and the hard containment booms protecting more than 100 miles of beaches and marshlands would be overcome by waves whipped up by strong winds.
More worryingly, storms could drive the oil far inland. Mark Bourassa, a specialist in oceans and weather at Florida State University, estimates that a hurricane or tropical storm could push oil up to 12 miles upriver – and deep into the grassy marshes that cover much of the Gulf shoreline and act as breeding grounds for fish and birds.
"The Gulf marshlands are particularly vulnerable and that could do great ecological damage," Bourassa said.
Hurricanes move in an anticlockwise direction in the Gulf, and those that strike to the west of the Deepwater Horizon well are likely to drive the oil onshore, while those that strike to the east are more likely to push it back out to sea. Florida will be particularly vulnerable to storms sweeping the pollution in its direction.
The high winds and big waves could also vastly extend the surface area over which the slick extends, making the clean-up all the more difficult.