The Atlantic Ocean hurricane season begins June 1, and scientists tracking the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are beginning to think about what would happen if a storm hit the growing slick.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration won't release its initial hurricane season forecast until Thursday, but experts said it would only take one storm in the Gulf to complicate the ongoing effort to stanch the gushing oil and limit its environmental impact.
NOAA talking points list a number of open questions, such as whether the oil plume could affect storm formation by suppressing evaporation of Gulf water and how a hurricane could change the size and location of the oil slick. There's little information about what would happen if a hurricane hit the spill, experts said.
Still, several scientists are worried that a hurricane could drive oil inland, soiling beaches and wetlands and pushing polluted water up river estuaries.
"My 'oh, no' thought is that a hurricane would pick up that oil and move it, along with salt, up into interior regions of the state that I am convinced the oil will not reach otherwise," said Robert Twilley, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University.
"The bottom line is, how much oil are we going to get into our wetlands? We don't know," he said. "This thing is gushing out in these huge numbers."
That's a question that Florida State University researchers Steven Morey and Dmitry Dukhovskoy are trying to answer with computer models of storm surge and ocean currents.
A somewhat mixed picture
"The storm could potentially transport the oil over some distance, we're not sure how far," said Morey, a physical oceanographer. "It could maybe break up the masses of the oil, through mixing. And it could also cause oil to wash over the land in a storm surge."
He and Dukhovskoy hope to have initial results by the time the storm season begins in roughly two weeks. But first they must tweak their computer models to take oil's physical properties into account.
"Oil on water changes the stress on the water from the winds," Morey said. "Oil will essentially slide over the water and change the roughness of the water. That's why we call it an oil slick. ... The waves present a technical challenge, as well."
But Dukhovskoy said he believes the hardest problem might be predicting the size and location of the slick at the beginning of hurricane season, so the scientists can feed it into their computer models.
While the government hasn't released its initial predictions for this year's hurricane season, other experts expect an active year.
Last month, Colorado State University forecasters Bill Gray and Phil Klotzbach said they "continue to see above-average activity for the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season." The pair are betting that warm ocean temperatures and a weakening El Niño will produce 15 named storms, including eight hurricanes. Half of those, they say, will be major hurricanes -- classified as Category 4 or 5.
An above-average hurricane year
Another hurricane watcher, AccuWeather meteorologist Joe Bastardi, puts that number even higher. He foresees 16 to 18 named storms, and believes this year's hurricane season is in line with those of 1998, 2008 and the record-setting 2005 season, which produced hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Emily and Dennis, among others.
Back in Louisiana, Robert Twilley is thinking about the worst-case scenario and hoping that if Louisiana's wetlands are hit, they'll continue their remarkable recent streak of recovering from natural disasters.
In 2000, a drought in the southeastern United States turned 100,000 acres of Louisiana's wetlands into mud flats, or "brown marsh." In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita carried Gulf water deep into the wetlands. Slow to drain out, the salty water dried out the marshes, Twilley said.
In both cases, scientists saw signs of recovery within a year. But there's no formula for predicting how resilient the Gulf Coast's beaches and wetlands might be in the face of an oil spill-hurricane one-two punch. And any recovery would come in the face of the ongoing wetlands loss from human intervention like canals and other earthworks that prevent silt from replenishing the coastal marshes. Louisiana now loses approximately 15 square miles of wetlands each year.
"These systems will recover," Twilley said. "It's going to be the length of time that's uncertain. And the important thing is, what happens in the meantime? What services do the wetlands provide the state of Louisiana? Fisheries, flood control, nutrient removal, habitat for ducks and nesting birds."