NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
Hurricane Rita strengthens in the Gulf of Mexico in September 2005. Forecasters are predicting this hurricane season will have an unusually high number of big storms because of weather conditions in the Atlantic.
Hurricane Rita strengthens in the Gulf of Mexico in September 2005. Forecasters are predicting this hurricane season will have an unusually high number of big storms because of weather conditions in the Atlantic. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
Government forecasters say they expect a busy hurricane season, one that could see a hurricane cross paths with the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We're facing a season that could rank among the more active on record," said Jane Lubchenko, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"If there is a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, and if it makes landfall someplace on the Gulf Coast," Lubchenko said, "it is possible that some of the oil that is at the surface might be transported through storm surge as high up as the storm surge goes."
That could mean 10 or more feet higher than normal tide levels, which could push oil miles into coastal wetlands in some places.
There are three reasons to expect a lot of hurricanes and tropical storms, Lubchenko said.
First, El Nino wind conditions, which discouraged storms last year, have dissipated.
Track the oil spill and the hurricane system through NOAA, the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration.
Second, water temperatures in parts of the Atlantic are up to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average, which would help hurricanes become more powerful.
And third, the Atlantic remains in a period of high hurricane activity that began in the mid-1990s.
The combination of hurricane-force winds and oil would be especially in parts of the Gulf where the huge areas of land are only a few feet above high tide, says Nan Walker, an oceanographer at the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University.
"The bottom quarter of Louisiana is very low-lying," she says. "So the oil potentially will go quite far inland."
What happens with both oil and hurricanes in the next few months will depend partly on something called the loop current, a warm current that flows into the Gulf near Cancun and out again near the Florida Keys.
"Most hurricanes that enter the Gulf of Mexico virtually explode; they intensify over the loop current because of the amazing amount of heat that it has," Walker says.
But this year the loop current may also move oil around the Gulf.
One tendril of the slick has already entered an eddy of the loop current that seems to be spinning away from the main flow.
If the eddy breaks away entirely, it will carry oil toward the coasts of Texas or Mexico, Walker says. If it rejoins the loop current, the oil will head toward the Florida Straits.
And then there's the possibility that a hurricane in the Gulf could actually cause another oil spill.
There are about 3,800 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, says Jill Hasling, president of Weather Research Center in Houston, which helps oil companies prepare for hurricanes. So it's almost impossible for a hurricane to cross the Gulf without hitting one.
People got a reminder of that when Hurricane Ike swept through the Gulf two years ago, Hasling says.
"Over 2,100 of those platforms were exposed to hurricane conditions, and out of that, 60 were totally destroyed," she says
That didn't cause any major oil spills. But every time a rig goes down, scientists say, it tests the emergency systems that are supposed shut off wells before large quantities of oil enter the Gulf.