Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Haiti vs. Oil Slick: The 'What If's' of Hurricane Season

Today is the first day of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season and while currently there are no imminent significant tropical threats, on the minds of many is... 'what if' a hurricane does slams into earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and 'what if' one does in fact swirl through the Gulf oil slick?

While the likelihood of one or both of these scenarios playing out over the next 183 (or more) days is quite likely given their location and climatological history being affected by tropical systems, just a mere glancing blow could be devastating. But which is the bigger concern? Here are some of the facts...


Now more than ever,
an intense tropical system affecting Haiti could prove catastrophic, and such a situation could potentially complicate difficult humanitarian relief operations following the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12. As it stands now, vast swathes of Haiti are devoid of greenery, soil-holding roots, trees or grasses. Centuries of deforestation as a result of mother nature's beating has left the entire country a mudslide waiting to happen. Excessive rainfall could bring to the country an increasing threat of disease and mudslides, among other hazards to the 1.7 million Haitians currently living in tent cities after losing their homes in the quake. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) has already set up better communications with Haiti to alert them to possible threats, but they know it won't be enough because there is really nowhere for them to go if a storm should threaten.

Oil Slick

Although nearly 7 million gallons of oil have already spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, the oil isn't covering enough of the warm waters that feed tropical storms to alter their development, and therefore it is not likely to have a significant impact on hurricane intensity. If
a hurricane swirls through the slick it may help break up the oil, but if one were to make landfall just west of the spill it could drive the oil inland on surging seawater. On the same note, a hurricane passing to the east of the slick could drive the oil away from the coast. Additionally, the high winds and seas could mix and weather the oil, which could help accelerate the bio-degradation process. A hurricane could also disperse oil further than its current location. Because there's no record of a hurricane ever crossing paths with a large oil spill, nobody knows for sure exactly what environmental impact it would have in this situation, but one could imagine it would just add to the ecological misery already occurring.

Check out NOAA's oil spill response fact sheet [PDF].