It looks like Hurricane Alex is getting serious, with the potential to cause horrifying damage.
Tropical Storm Alex, packing sustained winds of 70 mph in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico, is expected to strengthen into the first hurricane of the season today and already has disrupted oil spill cleanup efforts farther north.
The National Hurricane Center is predicting that Alex will make landfall as a hurricane along the northern Mexico or southern Texas coast on Wednesday evening, with sustained winds of 90 to 100 mph. Hurricane warnings are in effect.
This track will keep the storm itself well to the south of the oil spill, but the combination of a high-pressure system to the east of the storm and the wind associated with Alex will create a stronger-than-normal onshore flow across the oil slick area into Wednesday. This increased flow will force oil deeper into coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, into beaches and marshes where the oil has not yet reached. The flow from the southeast will also push the oil along the Louisiana coast farther to the west.
Hurricanes generate what's called a "storm surge," where the wind picks up surface water and whips it around so fast that it acts like a giant bulldozer as it piles ocean water up ahead of itself. If the surge hits the coastline, it could travel inland for miles, depositing oil everywhere.
Depending on the approach of a tropical storm or hurricane, increasing winds and building, massive seas would first halt containment operations.
Rough seas would dislodge or destroy protective booms, rendering them useless as the storm draws closer.
Next, as the storm rolls through, high winds on the right flank of a hurricane making landfall would cause some oil to become airborne in blowing spray.
A storm surge could carry contaminants inland beyond bays, marshes and beaches to locations well inland.
Even a glancing blow from a hurricane passing to the west of the oil slick could be enough for winds and wave action to drive the goo nearby onshore, or to more distant fishing and recreation areas, perhaps in foreign waters.
During the age of sail, hurricane winds occasionally blew ships hundreds of miles off course. The wind could have the same effect on the oil slick.
The hurricane winds could also stir up "volatile organic compounds" (toxic chemicals) in the air, such as benzene, a naturally occurring flammable liquid in crude oil and natural gas.
Following what is being described as one of the worst environmental disasters in history, the overwhelming task of cleaning up the tens of millions of gallons of crude oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico is now underway. To date some 5,360 response vessels and more than 25,000 people have been involved in the efforts. With such a large scale operation, the risk of exposure to the highly toxic and volatile chemical benzene is a significant threat. Benzene is a flammable liquid which occurs naturally in crude oil and natural gas; crew onboard vessels involved in the clean-up efforts may be exposed to dangerous levels if their working environment is not carefully monitored and controlled.
"Seafarers can ingest benzene by inhalation, but also absorb it through the skin - even through indirect contact given its volatile nature. In the short term, exposure to low levels can cause numerous health problems including tremors, headaches and unconsciousness. Benzene is a significant cause of leukaemia and other blood-related illnesses, and exposure to high concentrations can cause death," said Neil James, head of Concateno's Maritime division.
A dispersant being used in the clean up, Corexit, is a very dangerous chemical too.
As of today, those tests have not been completed, according to the EPA. In the meantime, BP has dumped 1.4 million gallons of Corexit on the gulf. Next week, we could have a hurricane pushing Corexit inland.
According to the Clark and George-Ares report, Corexit mixed with the higher gulf coast water temperatures becomes even more toxic.
The UK's Marine Management Organization has banned Corexit so if there was a spill in the UK's North Sea, BP is banned from using Corexit. In fact Corexit products currently being used in the Gulf were removed from a list of approved treatments for oil spills in the U.K. more than a decade ago. The Environmental Advisory Service for Oil and Chemical Spills at IVL, Swedish Environmental Institute, has, upon request of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency evaluated Corexit extensively and recommended it not be used in Swedish waters.
The Swedish study concludes: "The studies suggest that a mixture of oil and dispersant give rise to a more toxic effect on aquatic organisms than oil and dispersants do alone... The research on toxicity of oils mixed with dispersants has, however, shown high toxicity values even when the dispersant per se was not very toxic." A report for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Spill Prevention and Response concluded that Corexit actually inhibits bacterial degradation of crude oil. It may look good on the surface but it will take longer for natural bacteria to eat up the crude oil.
This is frightening stuff, because who knows what will happen? We've never experienced a disaster like this before. Nobody knows what to do!
Literally, millions of people are at risk, especially if they choose to stay at or near the coastline. Nothing can be done to stop a hurricane either, and the season lasts until November. Evacuate? I don't know how, but I suppose it's possible.
With toxic chemicals (and oil) in the air, and oil being splattered everywhere for miles inland, this could be an environmental disaster unlike the world has ever seen. A disaster that might be the final nail in the coffin of our already anemic economy. It could take years, even decades to recover from a disaster of this magnitude too. The cost in human life and natural destruction could be historic.
As horrifying as that is, remember too, that politicians never like to let a good crisis go to waste. So expect to see a lot grandstanding about oil pollution and the need for more laws and regulations, thereby making a bad situation even worse.
I just pray Hurricane Alex doesn't become this disastrous.