May 5, 2010

Hurricanes, Loop Current Are Concerns for Oil Slick

Light winds will translate to diminishing seas for the second half of the week and the weekend as crews move a containment system into place over the oil leak in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

However, concerns of hurricanes and drift remain for the weeks and months ahead.

The weather will cooperate as a series of domes is moved into place over the leaks via surface vessels. The domes will be sunk into position on the Gulf of Mexico floor. The plan is to then pump the oil from the domes to a barge on the surface. The system is similar to a giant "milk shake."

There already is a chemical dispersal system in place to help break up leaking oil before it reaches the surface. Planes are flying over the slick area delivering dispersal agents to combat the oil at the surface.

Short Term Wind, Wave Forecast

Seas over top of the source of the leaks were averaging 2 to 4 feet Wednesday morning and are forecast to continue to subside as the week progresses. This weekend waves are forecast to average a foot or less in the area.

Winds are forecast to be light and variable through Thursday night, then become south to southwesterly for a time Friday into Saturday at 6 to 12 mph. By Sunday, light winds from the west and northwest could cause some of the slick to drift more to the east.

Meanwhile, approximately 5,000 feet down, there is no significant wave action. Even during a hurricane the weather at the bottom remains relatively calm.

There are risks at the surface for containment vessels, booms and oil slick drift in general. While rough seas tend to break up some of the oil, they can also render boom systems ineffective, allowing some of the oil to reach the shoreline.

Hurricane Forecast hurricane expert, Joe Bastardi remains concerned about the possibility of a June hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Typically in June, hurricanes form in the western Caribbean and drift northward toward areas such as the Gulf of Mexico.

While the actual effects of a hurricane on the oil slick are indeed a wild card, there are some scenarios to ponder.

Depending on the strength of of such a tropical storm, rough seas could be a serious problem for containment operations and may cause them to halt until the storm passes.

Strong winds could steer part of the existing surface oil slick toward the northern Gulf Coast or elsewhere. High winds from a hurricane could also cause some the oil to become airborne in blowing spray, while a storm surge could carry contaminants inland.

On the other hand, to some extent, rough seas and heavy rain tend to work toward breaking up an oil slick.

Unpredictable Long-Term Drift

While the factor of winds, waves and storms makes for a tremendous forecast challenge as to where the oil slick will end up, ocean currents take the problem to a whole new level.

The Loop Current, located in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, is a concern as it links to the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water northward along the Atlantic Seaboard.

In theory, if the oil slick where to get caught in the Loop Current, it could be then transported to the Gulf Stream around Florida waters and then up part of the East Coast, potentially impacting wildlife and shoreline communities along the way.

On one hand, prevailing winds over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico this time of the year are from the south. Since the slick is still over 100 miles away from the Loop Current in the southeastern Gulf, it would appear to not be an immediate concern.

However, small local spirals, known as eddies, often break off of the Loop Current and could cause the slick to wander and spread just about anywhere.

The Loop Current itself often changes shape and location to some extent, adding more uncertainty to the mix.

One thing is for sure, the longer the leak goes unchecked and the the larger the slick grows, the greater the chances of the oil spreading to areas other than the Louisiana shoreline.

Story by Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski

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