A case of extremes…

This post contributed by Jill Petraglia Parsons, science programs manager at the Ecological Society of America.

In a congressional briefing yesterday on “Hurricanes and Oil: Managing Risk Now,” Rowan Douglas, Managing Director of the Willis Research Network’s (Willis Re) Global Analytics Division, was unable to see the screen his fellow panelists were using for their presentations. He did, however, have a perfect view of the audience. During one particular presentation, he witnessed everyone’s “eyes getting as big as saucers,” as he put it.

What caused this reaction? Dr. Rick Luettich, Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences and Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was showing an animated model that used meteorological and tidal data from past hurricanes to present possible scenarios in the Gulf of Mexico. I was a member of the saucer-eyed audience, staring with a mixture of horror—as I followed the oil spread to the Texas coast, into western Louisiana and up the Mississippi Delta—and awe that modeling this advanced exists and could potentially be put to good use.

While scientists are fairly certain that the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill will not have a significant impact on the intensity, storm surge and path of potential hurricanes that may track through it, we can only guess how a hurricane passing through the oil spill could affect oil distribution and density. As researchers at the briefing explained, high winds could mix and disperse oil throughout the water column, which could be beneficial in terms of breaking down oil but could also expose even more marine life to toxins.

Water and wind currents could pull oil away from beaches or push it onshore, depending on a storm’s direction. There is significant scope for a storm to move oil along shorelines as well, substantially increasing the spill’s horizontal distribution and pushing it onto beaches and wetland areas that were previously unaffected.

Scientists like Greg Holland, Director of the Earth System Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, cite evidence that climate change is playing an important role in increasing the number of major Atlantic hurricanes. Warmer ocean surface temperatures allow hurricanes to increase in intensity, and May 2010 surface temperatures in the Gulf are the highest on record, second only to temperatures in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. In terms of predicting a hurricane’s impacts on the oil spill, the most important factor is the storm’s forward speed, said Holland; second is the storm’s size and then its intensity.

The bad news seems to far outweigh the good, particularly when considering that adverse weather could (and has, over the past few days with Hurricane Alex) bring cleanup efforts to a standstill. This spill, coupled with a predicted active hurricane season, seems to be a recipe for disaster in terms of ecological, environmental and human health impacts.

Douglas, an expert in risk modeling in the reinsurance industry, discussed how Willis Re, a global reinsurance broker, analyzes ways to manage extremes in disasters and share costs at local and international scales. He defined the essence of sustainability as being able to avoid or manage the impact of extremes.

This situation is definitely a case of extremes: the largest Gulf oil spill ever, combined with exceptionally high temperatures and potentially the most active hurricane season the Gulf has seen in years.  And there are so many unknowns thrown into the mix. Though the model presented by Luettich is very sophisticated, it seemed abundantly clear that decision makers should invest more in science so that this type of necessary information is available for helping to predict environmental extremes and managing the consequences more efficiently.

There is a bit of good news: Scientists have immensely improved the ability to forecast the path of hurricanes and tropical storms in recent years. Hopefully, this will help in terms of saving human lives in the event of an intense storm and preparing the region to deal with the aftermath and cleanup. There is also the possibility that a storm could move oil away from some ecologically-vulnerable areas. Luettich and other researchers are working to predict impacts and manage risks as much as possible. And this is certainly a good thing since, in this particular case of extremes and unknowns, it is crucial to unravel as much as possible on the potential impacts. The nation’s health and the environment depend on it.

Author: Jill Petraglia-Parsons

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