Hurricane, Plus Oil Spill: It's Never Happened, and We Sure Don't Want It To

The Gulf oil spill is terrible, but it could become much, much worse and soon.

The threat comes in the form of a hurricane moving over the spill. If a hurricane’s violent winds track over the oil slicks this season, we will witness a natural and economic calamity that history has never recorded anywhere or anytime. We will literally be in oil-soaked uncharted waters, suffering the first ever "oilicane."

A Category One hurricane -- the scale ranks them from one to five -- has maximum sustained winds of 74 to 95 miles per hour near the eye. A Category Five hurricane has maximum sustained winds of 156 to 200 miles per hour. The difference between the two storms is gigantic, and non-linear. A Category Five hurricane will cause 250 times more damage than a Category One. In other words, there are hurricanes, and then there are monster hurricanes.

Tropical Storm Alex could become a hurricane over the southwestern Gulf of Mexico this week, however the wind currents in that region do not favor the storm coming anywhere near the oil spill. The more likely track is towards northern Mexico or southern Texas later this week.

Looking forward, the water temperature in the Atlantic Ocean is running as warm as the record setting season of 2005, and this is significant. Warmer water means more heat and humidity over the tropical ocean to fuel hurricanes. Just as a car needs gasoline to fuel its engine, a hurricane needs hot, humid air. A hurricane is a gigantic atmospheric engine -- the warmer and more humid the air it breathes in, the faster its pistons pump and the stronger its winds become. And warmer water not only creates more hurricanes, it makes more intense ones.

The 2005 season produced a record 15 hurricanes.

Oil now continues to gush from the bottom of the Gulf, and some is washing up on shores. Presently, the good news is that most of the oil is confined to coastal areas. The bad news is what might happen if a moderate to large hurricane rides over the spill.

The winds of a hurricane are so strong that the normal interface between ocean and atmosphere disappears. The winds generate large waves, spray is blown off the top of the waves, and spray mixes with the air. After a short time, there is no real boundary between ocean and atmosphere -- they become one! If a large hurricane moves over the spill, this chaotic mixture will also contain oil. The oil will become airborne and travel with the hurricane.