Gulf oil leak could impact hurricane season

By Andrew Freiden - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to grow, with tar balls washing up on Gulf Coast beaches. But some scientists will be watching closely, to see if the oil impacts hurricane season.

For years, meteorologists have theorized there may be a ways to slow hurricanes. One idea is to spread a thin layer of vegetable oil on the ocean's surface in the path of the storm. The Gulf of Mexico may turn into a big laboratory this summer as the oil leak may give us the first real-world test of this theory.

Friction between air and the ocean is what causes waves, but the national hurricane center has noticed smaller waves in areas of the Gulf where oil is on the surface.

"Just now looking at the data around the buoys in the area where the oil spill occurred the amount of oil on the surface has shown a distinct dampening effect on the waves. It reduces the friction on the wind that's hitting the water and the wave heights have been reduced," said Bill Read with the National Hurricane Center.

And the leak could have another effect. The oily film on the water might actually slow the evaporation of warm Gulf water.

Since hurricanes get their energy from warm ocean water, an oil slick could weaken a developing storm by robbing it of its fuel. But the potential for the oil to weaken a hurricane is low. A more likely scenario is much worse.

"The hurricane may have a huge effect on the distribution and the spreading out of the oil that's already in the Gulf of Mexico, so we're really hoping for a solution to the ongoing leaking of the oil before we get into the season," Read said.

It's a waiting game now for a fragile part of the country that's hoping hurricanes and oil both stay offshore this season. 

Copyright 2010 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.