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Hurricane Alex Signals Storm Season Could Disrupt Oil Cleanup

June 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we get more now from James Franklin, chief hurricane forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and Ivor Van Heerden, formerly at LSU. He’s now a senior scientist at Polaris Applied Sciences, an oil spill mapping and response company.

James Franklin, what’s the latest on the hurricane? Where is it hitting, and with what force?

JAMES FRANKLIN, chief hurricane forecaster, National Hurricane Center: (NO AUDIO)

JEFFREY BROWN: And in terms of its potential impact on the area of the oil spill, how far are those waves reaching or expected to reach?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Well, the effects have been there already for a couple of days, and, in fact, I think we will see over the next hours and days or so that the effects will begin to diminish. The peak effects have already occurred.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what were those effects?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Well, there were waves in the six- to seven- to eight-feet range. There was southeasterly flow of 2 to 25 miles per hour that persisted for several days now.

The southeast flow will continue for a little while longer. So, we’re still going to have that onshore flow even after Alex moves inland.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the weathering impact of those waves? What happens as those waves get to the oil spill area?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Any waves from a hurricane will accelerate the weathering process.

Now, Alex was very far away from the oil spill, and it didn’t have nearly the effect or contribution to the weathering process that it would have had had it been much closer. So, I don’t expect much of an impact in terms of that aspect of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I was just told that our audience didn’t hear your first answer. We were having some audio technical problems.

So, the first question that I put to you was really the situation right now with the hurricane. Where is it hitting and with what force?

JAMES FRANKLIN: OK.

Alex is a Category 1 hurricane, 90-mile-per-hour winds. It’s about three or four hours offshore the coast of Northeastern Mexico. It is showing signs of strengthening, and we expect it to be a Category 2 hurricane by the time it reaches the coastline in just a few hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring in Mr. Van Heerden.

What is the impact of the waves and the so-called weathering from the storm? It has a potential benefit and also some adverse impact on the oil spill, correct?

IVOR VAN HEERDEN, senior scientist, Polaris Applied Sciences: That’s correct.

Last Sunday, I witnessed the oil coming ashore on the Chandeleur Islands. And what we saw was in the — at that time, gentle waves in the surf zone. The big patties and stringers were breaking up fairly readily into the smaller patties and tar balls.

So, I would suspect we have got seven- to eight-foot waves out there, that we will be breaking up some of the larger patties and some of the stringers into smaller particles. And the smaller they are, the more rapidly they break down with microbial activity and so on.

But the other scare, the other fear we have is higher water levels in the bays that would allow oil to penetrate into the interior marshes. So far, we have had very limited oiling of marshes, and that’s only been along the fringes.

But the data that I was looking at just before I came here showed tides about a foot to a foot-and-a-half above normal. And that may not be enough to float the oil into the back marsh. So, we can just hope and pray. And, certainly, in a couple of day, we will be back on the ground surveying the results of this storm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how does that change for now what is happening on the — on land, in terms of cleaning up or preventing more oil from coming?

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Well, a lot of boom systems, especially the absorbent boom, is not very strong in terms of resisting currents and waves. So, we have had problems with booms breaking up and being washed into — on beaches, into marshes.

But, again, one of the things that we have seen over the last few weeks is that this oil breaks down very, very readily, especially if it’s exposed to waves and tides. And that’s whether it’s on rocks on the beach, in the mangroves, or in the marsh.

So, we’re going to be interested to see if some of the areas that were previously oiled get cleaned through the higher wave energy that’s now in the bay. So, this storm could have both negative impacts and positive impacts, and we will have to wait and see. Certainly, it is driving the oil ashore in greater quantities than we have seen in the last few weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me bring Mr. Franklin back.

Alex is said to be the earliest hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since 1995, I understand. Does that help us think about this coming season and what might be coming?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Well, it probably won’t go down as a strike on the U.S. mainland, but it is unusual to get a tropical cyclone in June formed from a tropical wave, which is how Alex formed.

Normally, that mechanism doesn’t get going until we get into late July and into August. So, I think it is an indicator that we’re seeing conditions conducive for development over a lot of the tropical Atlantic. We were expecting a busy season before the season started. We’re still expecting a busy season.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Mr. Van Heerden, finally, that season is coming. So, what does that do? That means that everybody there must need to adjust.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Yes, and, you know, we are all hoping that they get this well capped as quickly as possible, and that we can get to the actual final cleanup phase and try and put this whole tragedy behind us.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Ivor Van Heerden and James Franklin, thank you both very much.

JAMES FRANKLIN: You’re welcome.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, Ray Suarez moderates an exclusive “NewsHour”/Google/YouTube conversation with BP executive Bob Dudley. Find out how you can submit your questions by visiting our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org, or YouTube’s CitizenTube page.

You will be able to watch live online on our Web site and on YouTube at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time. And we will air excerpts on tomorrow’s “NewsHour.”