These reports and the speculation surrounding them are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. I don't mean to insult anyone by calling them an idiot--I just felt the need to paraphrase Shakespeare while trying to calm a few razzled nerves.
We have had tropical cyclones blow through a massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico before. Not once, not twice, but three times in the same year. The year was 1979, and the oil slick was caused by the blowout of the Ixtoc well in the southern Gulf of Mexico in June of that year. The well spewed as many as 202 million gallons of oil before being killed by a relief well in March of 1980. In the interim, two named hurricanes--Bob in July and Frederic in September--blew through the Gulf. The third storm was Tropical Storm Elena. All three moved through or very near the slick, which spread from the southern Gulf all the way to the Texas and Louisiana coasts and also dropped tarballs and weathered oil patches as far east as Panama City Beach, Florida.
Bob was a Category I storm that formed very near the Ixtoc well itself and eventually struck the Grand Isle, Louisiana area on July 11. Its path took it straight through the massive slick caused by the Ixtoc well, and there were no reports of oil ruining entire swaths of the coast or rendering them uninhabitable.
Tropical Storm Elena formed on August 29, also very near the Ixtoc well and growing oil slick. It tracked northward and hit the Texas Gulf Coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi on September 1. Just like Bob, it went right through the slick and again, there were no reports of oil ruining entire swaths of the coast or rendering them uninhabitable.
Frederic was the worst of the bunch. This was a classic Cape Verde storm, forming off the coast of Africa, tracking west, entering the Carribean and tracking straight through the heart of the Gulf of Mexico. It hit the Mobile, Alabama area with Category III force winds and devastated Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Dauphin Island, Alabama. And, just like the two storms before it, there were no reports of oil contaminating the communities or rendering them uninhabitable.
There are three things you need to take away from this post:
- An oil spill in the Gulf combined with a tropical cyclone is not a baby duck. We've seen it before, and things were nowhere near as bad as the speculation you might be reading in the press right now.
- The Gulf of Mexico is a massive, complex and amazingly resilient body of water, and so are the coastlines it washes upon. The Ixtoc disaster remains the largest oil spill in the history of the Gulf and absolutely no one was talking about it until the Exxon Valdez spill ten years later.
- Today's mass media thrives on the creation of the sense of crisis and fear. Without fear, uncertainty and doubt, you won't watch. When you hear breathless reports about a potential oilcane destroying the Gulf and its coasts, remember that they're just trying to sell you toothpaste and Toyotas, the truth be damned.
Gimme some feedback in the comments.