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Hurricanes and Oil Spills – How they Mix

Thank you, Enviro-Girl, for forwarding me this information:

What will happen to a hurricane that runs through
this oil slick?

• Most hurricanes span an enormous area of the
ocean (200-300 miles) — far wider than the
current size of the spill.
• If the slick remains small in comparison to a
typical hurricane’s general environment and size,
the anticipated impact on the hurricane would
be minimal.
• The oil is not expected to appreciably affect either
the intensity or the track of a fully developed
tropical storm or hurricane.
• The oil slick would have little effect on the storm
surge or near-shore wave heights.
What will the hurricane do to the oil slick in
the Gulf?
• The high winds and seas will mix and “weather”
the oil which can help accelerate the
biodegradation process.
• The high winds may distribute oil over a wider
area, but it is difficult to model exactly where the
oil may be transported.
• Movement of oil would depend greatly on the
track of the hurricane.
• Storms’ surges may carry oil into the coastline
and inland as far as the surge reaches. Debris
resulting from the hurricane may be contaminated
by oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident, but
also from other oil releases that may occur during
the storm.
• A hurricane’s winds rotate counter-clockwise.
o A hurricane passing to the west of the oil slick
could drive oil to the coast.
o A hurricane passing to the east of the slick
could drive the oil away from the coast.
o However, the details of the evolution of the
storm, the track, the wind speed, the size, the
forward motion and the intensity are all
unknowns at this point and may alter this
general statement.

Will the oil slick help or hurt a storm from
developing in the Gulf?

• Evaporation from the sea surface fuels tropical
storms and hurricanes. Over relatively calm water
(such as for a developing tropical depression or
disturbance), in theory, an oil slick could suppress
evaporation if the layer is thick enough, by not
allowing contact of the water to the air.
• With less evaporation one might assume there
would be less moisture available to fuel the
hurricane and thus reduce its strength.
• However, except for immediately near the source,
the slick is very patchy. At moderate wind speeds,
such as those found in approaching tropical
storms and hurricanes, a thin layer of oil such as
is the case with the current slick (except in very
limited areas near the well) would likely break into
pools on the surface or mix as drops in the upper
layers of the ocean. (The heaviest surface slicks,
however, could re-coalesce at the surface after the
storm passes.)
• This would allow much of the water to remain in
touch with the overlying air and greatly reduce
any effect the oil may have on evaporation.
• Therefore, the oil slick is not likely to have a
significant impact on the hurricane.

Will the hurricane pull up
the oil that is below the
surface of the Gulf?

• All of the sampling to date
shows that except near
the leaking well, the
subsurface dispersed oil is in
parts per million levels or less. The hurricane will
mix the waters of the Gulf and disperse the oil
even further.
Have we had experience in the past with
hurricanes and oil spills?
• Yes, but our experience has been primarily with oil
spills that occurred because of the storm, not
from an existing oil slick and an ongoing release
of oil from the seafloor.
• The experience from hurricanes Katrina and Rita
(2005) was that oil released during the storms
became very widely dispersed.
• Dozens of significant spills and hundreds of
smaller spills occurred from offshore facilities,
shoreside facilities, vessel sinkings, etc.

Will there be oil in the rain related to
a hurricane?

• No. Hurricanes draw water vapor from a large
area, much larger than the area covered by oil,
and rain is produced in clouds circulating
the hurricane.
Learn more about NOAA’s response to the BP oil
spill at
To learn more about NOAA, visit

June 2, 2010 Posted by | Environment, Florida, Hurricanes, Weather | Leave a comment