Venice, La. As hurricane season approaches, the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico takes weather forecasters into nearly uncharted waters.
The Gulf is a superhighway for hurricanes that form or explode over pools of hot water, then usually move north or west toward the coast. The site of the sunken rig is along the general path of some of the worst storms ever recorded, including Hurricane Camille, which wiped out the Mississippi coast in 1969, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The season officially starts Tuesday, and while scientists seem to agree that the sprawling slick isn’t likely to affect the formation of a storm, the real worry is that a hurricane might turn the millions of gallons of floating crude into a crashing black surf.
Some fear a horrific combination of damaging winds and large waves pushing oil deeper into estuaries and wetlands and coating miles of debris-littered coastline in a pungent, sticky mess.
And the worst effects of an oil-soaked storm surge might not be felt for years: If oil is pushed deep into coastal marshes that act as a natural speed bump for storm surges, areas including New Orleans could be more vulnerable to bad storms for a long time.
Experts say there are few, if any, studies on such a scenario.
In this “untreaded water ... it’s tough to theorize about what would happen,” said Joe Bastardi, chief long-range hurricane forecaster with AccuWeather.com.
The lone precedent, experts agree, is the summer of 1979, when storms hampered efforts to contain a spill from a Mexican rig called Ixtoc 1 that eventually dumped 140 million gallons off the Yucatan Peninsula. Hurricane Henri, a Category 1 storm, damaged a 310-ton steel cap designed to stop the leak that would become the worst peacetime spill in history.
Still, while oil from that spill coated miles of beaches in Texas and Mexico, tropical storms and unseasonable cold fronts that year helped reverse offshore currents earlier than normal and drive oil away from the coast. Storms also helped disperse some of the oil, Bastardi said.
“That’s what I think would happen this time,” he said. “I’m sure a hurricane would do a great deal of diluting the oil, spreading it out where the concentrations would be much less damaging.”
At least 19 million gallons, according to the latest estimates, have leaked from the seabottom 5,000 feet below the surface since the April 20 explosion of BP PLC’s Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11. Syrupy oil has crept into Louisiana’s marshes, coating plants, killing some birds and threatening wetlands.
The threat to the marshes could have implications lasting well beyond this hurricane season. Louisiana already has lost huge swaths of coastal wetlands in recent decades, and the oil is a major threat to the long-term viability of that delicate ecosystem.