With the arrival of Tropical Storm Alex, the Atlantic hurricane season has officially opened — and that could be bad news for BP's efforts to stop the massive Deepwater Horizon oil geyser, and to contain and clean up the oil, which is now hitting land from Louisiana to Florida. (Watch an AP report about Tropical Storm Alex's threat.) Here's a quick look at the challenges in the Gulf as we enter the 2010 hurricane season:
Is Alex headed for the spill?
No. Alex is expected to ramp up to hurricane force and make landfall sometime late Wednesday near the Texas-Mexico border. If it sticks to that course, Alex will miss the Deepwater Horizon site by hundreds of miles. Still, storms are "unpredictable," and this one could veer to the east, cautions Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who's overseeing the federal response to the BP spill. (And even so, thanks to rougher seas, BP is delaying for a week an upgrade that could double the amount of oil captured a day.)
What happens if a hurricane does hit?
Much of the cleanup operation and coastal rescue efforts would have to be suspended or, in the case of equipment like containment booms, disassembled. The ship crews that are busily siphoning up oil and drilling relief wells can continue in waves of up to 12 feet, says BP, but would lose up to 10 days if forced to evacuate and set up again. (A new system in the works would cut that interruption to two days.)
What would be the consequences of an evacuation?
A full hurricane-related evacuation would leave up to 60,000 barrels of oil a day flowing unchecked into the Gulf for up to two weeks. The wind and waves from a hurricane would also push more oil, and the oil-soaked booms, ashore or into inlets.
Is there any upside to hurricane season?
There's speculation that the high waves and gale-force winds of a hurricane could actually help break up the oil patches, letting the crude evaporate at a faster rate. We will probably find out either way, and soon — meteorologists are forecasting a very active 2010 hurricane season until Nov. 30.