A tropical disturbance that we have been watching for nearly a week is now becoming better organized in the Caribbean Sea. If you recall this system was located out in the central Atlantic last week in an area that was favorable for development. But most tropical systems climatologically have a difficult time developing that far east and this one followed the same fate.
Now the disturbance is in a more favorable area both meteorologically and climatologically for development. The eventual path of this tropical system is still up in the air as tropical forecast models show this system moving anywhere from Brownsville, TX to Mobile, AL (see here). In fact the GFLD model shows this system becoming a major hurricane with top winds near 120mph off the Louisiana Coast by late Sunday early Monday (see here). However the HWRF model shows this system as a strong tropical storm with top winds near 70 mph off the coast of Mobile, AL by Tuesday (see here). The overall strength of this tropical system will depend on the eventual path it takes. The Yucatan Peninsula is very important to the development of this storm. If it can say over the water and not pass over land, like the GFLD indicates, this system would have the time and energy needed to become a Hurricane. If it moves over the peninsula, it would more than likely remain a tropical storm or not develop at all. Only time will tell.
At the same time this is occurring, a fairly strong surface high pressure is forecast to develop over the Great Lake States and send a backdoor cold front into the area. If this does occur then the overall path of this tropical disturbance would be more to the west making the Texas Gulf Coast a likely landfall.
So how would a tropical storm or hurricane affect the oil spill out in the Gulf? Would the spill have an impact in its intensity? Will a strong hurricane spread oil over most of the Gulf region? These are many questions I have been receiving over the past few weeks. These are all great concerns so I will tackle them for you the best I can.
First let's look at the strength of a tropical system being affected by the oil spill. It has been theorized that if we were to place a significant amount of oil in the path of a hurricane, this would stop the amount of warm water the storm could ingest, acting like a barrier. While this could have some truth during initial storm creation, with a storm that has already developed this would not be the case. The waves and rain out ahead of the storm would dilute the oil greatly, not making it a barrier what so ever.
Which brings us to our next question, would this hurricane spread oil to all areas of the Gulf? In all actuality, a hurricane would bring some oil inland with the storm surge and this could cause some problems. But the overall affect the hurricane would have on the oil in the Gulf would be to dilute it. The heavy rain, high winds, and turning seas would help accelerate the break down process more than if we did not have a hurricane.
Another question that I have been getting is will the oil spill cause the hurricane to rain down oily rain. The answer to this is no. The amount of oil spilled so far, although staggering, is only a drop in the bucket so to speak to the amount of water vapor evaporated and stored in the storm. So the hurricane clouds would be made of water vapor thus the rain would not contain oil. For more on hurricanes and oil spills, please read this article from NOAA.
For an updated satellite image of this disturbance see here.