How will this affect the oil spill? – If we know what’s coming, we can be prepared: A group of Florida scientists who have developed a computer model for predicting hurricanes with unprecedented accuracy are forecasting an unusually active season coming our way this year.

Researcher Tim LaRow predicts there will be an average of 17 named storms with 10 of those storms developing into hurricanes in the Atlantic this season, which began on June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. The historical seasonal average is 11 tropical storms with 6 of them becoming hurricanes. He says, ‘It looks like it will be a very busy season, and it only takes one hurricane making landfall to have devastating effects. The predicted high number of tropical systems means there is an increased chance that the eastern United States or Gulf Coast will see a landfall this year.’

The model’s first forecast in 2009 was on target: It predicted a below-average season, with a mean of eight named storms with four of them developing into hurricanes. There were 9 named storms with three that became hurricanes.

How the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will affect the development of tropical storms this year is a question that scientists are still trying to figure out. The oil on the ocean surface can diminish the amount of surface evaporation, which would lead to local increased ocean temperatures near the surface, but LaRow said he’s made no adjustments to the model to account for the oil that continues to gush from an underwater well: ‘The oil spill will probably have little influence on the hurricane season, but we don’t know for sure since this spill is unprecedented. It’s uncertain how exactly the atmospheric and oceanic conditions might change if the spill continues to grow.’

So why doesn’t BP release oil-eating bacteria into the Gulf? One reason is that scientists don’t know how the dispersants that have already been released might affect the oil-eating microbes that could help clean up the spill. The microbes prefer the lighter compounds of oil, the gasoline part of the black goo, and tend to leave behind the heavily weathered residue, which is what makes its way to the surface and, sometimes, to the beaches in the form of tar. On the Smartplanet website, Deborah Gage quotes researcher David Valentine as saying, ‘There always seems to be a residue. They (bacteria) hit a wall. There seems to be stages in which they eat. There’s the easy stuff–the steak. And then they work their way to the vegetables, and then garnish, and then they stop eating after awhile. Just depends on how hungry they are and what’s fed to them.’

A detailed computer modeling study indicates that oil from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico might soon extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean as early as this summer. Scientist Synte Peacock of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) says, “I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?’ Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood.”

The computer simulations indicate that, once the oil in the uppermost ocean has become entrained in the Gulf of Mexico’s fast-moving Loop Current, it is likely to reach Florida’s Atlantic coast within weeks. It can then move north as far as about Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with the Gulf Stream, before turning east. Whether the oil will be a thinfilm on the surface or mostly subsurface due to mixing in the uppermost region of the ocean is not known. German environmentalist martin Visbeck says, “We have been asked if and when remnants of the spill could reach the European coastlines. Our assumption is that the enormous lateral mixing in the ocean together with the biological disintegration of the oil should reduce the pollution to levels below harmful concentrations.”

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