Hurricanes Could Spread Gulf Oil Inland

AccuWeather.com’s Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski points out today that hurricanes may spread the Gulf oil inland:

While the oil leak disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is bad enough, many people have been wondering what could happen if a hurricane were to slam into the region.

AccuWeather.com hurricane expert Joe Bastardi is concerned by multiple threats from storms throughout the season in the Gulf of Mexico.

[According to predictions for an active hurricane season this year], much of the central and western Gulf of Mexico could be one of several targets for potential multiple tropical storm and/or hurricane landfalls this year.

Depending on the approach of a tropical storm or hurricane, increasing winds and building, massive seas would first halt containment operations.

Rough seas would dislodge or destroy protective booms, rendering them useless as the storm draws closer.

Next, as the storm rolls through, high winds on the right flank of a hurricane making landfall would cause some oil to become airborne in blowing spray. A storm surge could carry contaminants inland beyond bays, marshes and beaches to well developed locations.

Even a glancing blow from a hurricane passing to the west of the oil slick could be enough for winds and wave action to drive the goo nearby onshore, or to more distant fishing and recreation areas, perhaps in foreign waters.

During the age of sail, winds occasionally blew ships hundreds of miles off course. The wind could have the same effect on the oil slick.

Now, imagine several storms during the season doing the same thing.

Hurricanes are powered by the heat released when moist air rises. As McClatchy notes, it is possible that the oil might slow down the hurricane formation process in the oil spill zone itself by reducing the evaporation of seawater:

Oil wouldn’t have an effect on the track of the storm or the intensity, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

He added, though, that a hurricane or tropical storm might have trouble forming in or near an oil slick.

“Oil itself suppresses evaporation of the ocean’s water,” Feltgen said. “Tropical cyclones require a good amount of that moisture for those deep thunderstorms to develop, so it could slow down the genesis process.”

Masters said while there are different theories on what happens when storms and oil mix, it’s difficult to tell until it happens.

“It’s kind of an open question,” he said. “We don’t know what would happen, but if they don’t clean up the oil spill by September, then we definitely could see some hurricane and oil spill interaction.

In other words, it may be less likely that a hurricane could spill right in the spill zone; but hurricanes could easily form outside of the spill zone and then interact with oil as they moved towards shore.

Oil is toxic for humans, containing many different compounds:

Oil contains a mixture of chemicals. The main ingredients are various hydrocarbons, some of which can cause cancer (eg. the PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons); other hydrocarbons can cause skin and airway irritation. There are also certain volatile hydrocarbons called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which can cause cancer and neurologic and reproductive harm. Oil also contains traces of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.

The oil in the Gulf is also unrefined, unlike the stuff you pour into your car. It also comes from the deepest oil well ever drilled, and it is possible that the chemistry is different at such great depths due to pressure, heat or other factors. So it is hard to tell at this point whether it is more or less toxic than standard, refined oil (Coast Guard chemists have tested the oil, but – to date – no reports have been made public.)

In addition, highly toxic dispersants have been used to try to break up the oil. See this and this. Not only are dispersants being released underwater, but the air force is also dropping dispersants on the slick from above.

The official information for the dispersant reveals problems:

OSHA requires companies to make Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDSs, available for any hazardous substances used in a workplace, and the ones for these dispersants both contain versions of a disturbing statement.

***

Both data sheets include the warning “human health hazards: acute.” The MSDS for Corexit 9527A [the dispersant apparently being used in the Gulf] states that “excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects,” and “repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol [an active ingredient] may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver.” It adds: “Prolonged and/or repeated exposure through inhalation or extensive skin contact with EGBE [butoxyethanol] may result in damage to the blood and kidneys.”

The bottom line is that hurricanes could very well spread the damage from the Gulf oil spill.

In the best case scenario, the gusher will have been capped and some cleanup commenced by the time the first hurricane hits the Gulf, the hurricane will be small, and the effects minimal.

In the worst case scenario, a major hurricane could spread toxic compounds inland onto crops. It could also aerosolize and then spread toxic chemicals, causing serious health problems for local residents – especially children, the elderly and those already at risk.

For background on the Gulf oil spill, see this.

Updates: See this, this and this.

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