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What Happens When Summer's Predicted Big Hurricanes Meet the Oil Slick

Even though it looks like we've totally figured this Gulf spill thing out (kidding!), I fear that the story of the Deepwater Horizon is still only in the second act. As if Gulf residents need anything else to be worried about at the moment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced yesterday that this hurricane season (which officially starts next Tuesday) is likely to be "active to extremely active," comparing it to the 2005 season that produced Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Greg Holland, a tropical meteorology expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, gave this none-too-encouraging assessment: "We have a large number of parallels for the 2005 season, where the sea surface temperatures and the general overall conditions are very similar, with one important difference and that is that they are actually higher. In other words we are now in record conditions in a lot of the area."

Jane Lubchenco, head NOAA administrator, agreed: "If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active on record.”

Of course, there's still quite a bit of oil in the Gulf, both on the surface and in massive underwater plumes. What the heck happens if a hurricane or tropical storm were to pass over the oil-coated Gulf? It's unchartered territory, but on his WunderBlog, meteorologist Jeff Masters takes a stab:

On transport of oil and beaches:

The strong winds and powerful ocean currents that a hurricane's winds drive will bring oil to large stretches of coast that otherwise would not have gotten oil. This is my chief concern regarding a hurricane moving through the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. ... If a sandy beach is already fouled by oil, a hurricane can help clean up the mess. However, the situation is different along shores with marshlands, where the many shoreline plants offer crevices and tangled roots for the oil to accumulate in. A hurricane will help scour some of the oil out of marshlands, but the majority of it will probably remain stuck. This is also true of rocky beaches."\n

On storm surge and oil:

One of the more unnerving prospects to consider if a hurricane hits the oil spill is what the hurricane's storm surge might do with the oil/dispersant mixture. The foul mix would ride inland on top of the surge, potentially fouling residential areas and hundreds of square miles of sensitive ecosystems with the toxic stew.

On wind and oil:

We can anticipate that a hurricane passing over the oil spill will be able to hurl oil and toxic dispersants many miles inland during landfall. In regions where little rain falls, the concentrations of the oil and dispersants may be a problem.

Masters also notes that the oil itself could have a warming effect on Gulf waters, which could further strengthen a storm. It's really worth giving his whole post a look. Also worth checking out (and a little less weather wonky than Masters) is Chris Mooney's take on Slate.

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