Voyager: What impact would an oil leak have on the gulf and surrounding land if a higher-category hurricane were to hit the area?


If a high-category hurricane, similar in strength to Katrina, were to have hit the Gulf of Mexico during the recent BP oil leak, a damaging sequence of events would have occurred.

Strong currents from the west would have carried all surface material to a depth of at least 100 meters (328 feet) while oil residue would have vertically mixed with the water from the massive waves pounding the surface. This mixing would have taken place from the Florida Panhandle to the coast of Texas and even further south and west down to Mexico.

As the large storm surged, waves as high as 9 meters (30 feet) would have pounded the entire coastline. These waves would have been covered with a layer of oil residue. As the surge made landfall, this residue could have been pushed inland as far as five to 10 miles, coating everything in its path.

Along with debris from destroyed boats and the remains of coastal homes and buildings, there would have been a coating of fine granulated oil. Imagine a thin coating of oil on the water’s surface from the shore up to 10 miles inland, including bays and estuaries. The devastation would be just as horrific as what was witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, but now all the damage would be covered in a layer of crude oil.

Thankfully, Hurricane Katrina or a similarly large storm didn’t hit during or soon after the BP oil leak because the destruction would have been substantially worse.

-- Peter Niiler, distinguished physical oceanography researcher, Climate, Atmospheric Science and Physical Oceanography Division


To learn more about Scripps research during the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, read our story “Lessons from Deepwater,”

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