UH Expert Explains Potential Impact of Hurricanes on Gulf Disaster

Q&A With Don Van Nieuwenhuise, Hurricane and Geoscience Expert

Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, with his experience as a production geologist and ongoing research on the impact hurricanes have on the Texas coast, understands the lengthy process of drilling relief wells and what effect a Gulf storm could have on that process as well as the overall recovery effort. Van Nieuwenhuise, Ph.D., is Director of the Professional Geoscience Programs in UH's department of geosciences, as well as Director of the Applied Sequence and Biostratigraphy Program. Van Niewenhuise can also address how a storm's path and trajectory may impact the spread of oil on Gulf Coast states.

Q: How can a tropical storm/hurricane disrupt the oil spill recovery effort in the Gulf of Mexico?
A: When you talk about the relief wells, all of the wells need to be shut-in or shut down. The (oil) capturing effort would have to be shut off, and when that's shut off you would get the full flow of the blowout while they are gone. It would take them about five days to evacuate. They'd probably leave a few people there almost up to the final 24 hours if that were the case and then get them out of the way and make sure everything was secure. It could flow for a week to two weeks depending on how long it took them to get back to the area. If you have to shut-in operations, you want to minimize the time and duration to get things operating. They would have to stop the relief well operations, shut those in and wait for a while and that's probably not as critical as the capture of oil right now because the more oil they capture right now, the less that will get into the Gulf and the better that is for everybody.

Q: What effect do tropical storms/hurricanes have on longshore currents, the movement of sediments along a coast parallel to the shoreline? Can longshore currents change the direction of the oil that has already spilled into the Gulf? 
A: If the hurricane makes landfall at a certain trajectory they intensify a longshore current and that can cause a trapped-wave effect. If you get a well-developed longshore current it can actually increase the storm surge. The longshore current also causes more erosion, and why it's important here is because if oil gets close to shore it can be entrained in the longshore currents. If you get strong longshore currents to the east it could push more oil along the coast into Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Likewise, if you have a hurricane that comes from the other direction it could increase the velocity of the flow to the west and force it (oil) a little closer to Texas. ... I don't think people have a very good handle on longshore currents because it's very hard to measure them when a hurricane comes in. We are all worried about the storm surge and we overlook the fact that the wave energy gets refracted and actually squeezes water along the coast and pushes it in one direction, either east or west.

Q: Hurricane Alex hit the Texas Gulf Coast early this summer. Are we headed for a busy hurricane season? What could that mean for the oil spill recovery effort?
A: One of the things that is worrisome about having a huge disaster in the Gulf right now is that those that predict the number of hurricanes have predicted a large number of hurricanes. It hasn't gone unnoticed that rarely do we get hurricanes forming in the Caribbean this early in the season, and consequently, that doesn't bode well for hurricanes in the future this summer because all of the models say we are going to get a lot of hurricanes and they are starting early and that is very worrisome for the people working on these operations. The last thing in the world they need is a series of two or three or four hurricanes right after each other. That could shut down operations for a month if we had several hurricanes come in one after another. They wouldn't have to be large hurricanes, just Category One, Category Two, would be enough to cause problems.

Q: What impact does a tropical storm/hurricane have on the path of the oil already dumped into the Gulf?
A: I think a lot of people are worried about the storm surge coming in and dumping 400 gallons of oil in their backyard. There could be areas where there are concentrations of oil beyond what we would like to see. I don't think, in general, that will happen too much. Usually what will happen with a hurricane (is), there is a lot of wave energy, there is a lot of wind energy and it will disperse that oil significantly. It will probably be very localized that you have concentrations that are hard to deal with and will be problematic. On a broad scale it will probably help, but on a local scale it could be very devastating. If the wave energy were to focus in on a bay that's important to be protected and the environment is very delicate, you wouldn't want a lot of oil concentrated there.

Q: Is there better technology available to track tropical storms/hurricanes?
A: You never know where the focus of the hurricane is going to be until it comes on shore. As well as these models work, whenever one comes on shore we are always a little bit surprised where the main force is and where the highest velocity wave energy and storm surge actually ends up being.

For embed codes or clean video files for your website, blog or broadcast, please contact Shawn Lindsey, selindsey@uh.edu