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Depressing news: First tropical depression of the season forming in Atlantic

From the Orlando Sentinel:

Two weeks into the hurricane season and what could be the first named storm of the year is brewing in the central Atlantic Ocean — maybe.

The National Hurricane Center gives the “broad area of low pressure” a 60 percent chance of turning into something worth worrying about over the next 48 hours.

“It’s a disturbance. There’s nothing more to it than that,” said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. “We get a lot of these throughout hurricane season.”

The National Hurricane Center originally predicted that the 2010 season will be ” busier-than-usual”. As of June 2, forecasters were predicting 10 hurricanes, five of them major, with a 76 percent likelihood that a major hurricane would hit the U.S. coastline.

Need I say that this is very, very bad news?

More below the fold.

Coastal marshes and wetlands provide the first defense against a tropical cyclone’s storm surge, where combination of very low air pressures and very high winds cause water to pile up at the storm’s leading edge. The wetlands act as a buffer, absorbing the push of water and helping to protect the environment — and towns — further inland.

If — when? — a hurricane hits the coast of Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia or eastern Florida this summer, it is almost certain that oil from the British Petroleum leak will get pushed long distances into these wetlands where it will be impossible to remove. The oil, and any of the extremely toxic dispersants that might be mixed in, will quickly kill off the plants that anchor those wetlands in place. The next big storm will wash much of those wetlands away, and the one after that… no more buffer.

Another great fear is what a major storm could do to the network of pipes that connect shallow off-shore drilling rigs to on-shore refineries. From ABC News:

Most of us think of hurricanes as violent storms in the atmosphere. But Hemantha Wijesekera and her colleagues looked at data from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 — a category-4 storm, the tenth most intense on record — and found it was scouring the gulf floor as much as 90 meters (300 feet) beneath the surface.

This matters because of the network of pipes and cables that connect offshore rigs in the gulf to the mainland. There are 31,000 miles of pipelines snaking across the floor of the gulf, according the American Geophysical Union.

Wijeskera et al, writing in Geophysical Research Letters for publication on June 10, say the undersea force of the storm was considerable.

“During the passage of Ivan, the bottom stress was highly correlated with the wind with a maximum of about 40 percent of the wind stress,” they say. “The bottom stress was dominated by the wave-induced stresses, and exceeded critical levels at depths as large as 90 m. Surprisingly, the bottom damaging stress persisted after the passage of Ivan for about a week, and was modulated by near-Inertial waves.”

If we are moderately unlucky, the current leak will be the least of our worries.

But even if we manage to avoid an ecological armageddon, it is almost certain that even a moderate strength storm will push the ever-growing slick of toxic sludge into the Gulf Stream current, carrying it around southern Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard, where it can smear beaches, kill wildlife and help destroy wetlands.

Drill, baby, drill.

The National Hurricane Center has an excellent website where you can watch Mother Nature taunt us. Just take care not to bite your nails down to the quick.

Added: A co-worker suggested The Weather Underground, which gives temperature maps of the water: the hotter the water, the more likely a cyclone will form. (The mechanics of a tropical cyclone — also called hurricanes or typhoons in different parts of the planet — is to redistribute heat away from large bodies of water into the atmosphere.) From a blog entry about this potential storm:

Climatology argues against development of 92L, since only one named storm has ever formed between Africa and the Lesser Antilles Islands in the month of June–Tropical Storm Ana of 1979 (Figure 2). However, sea surface temperatures (SSTs) underneath 92L are an extremely high 28°C, and will increase to 29°C by Thursday. In fact, with summer not even here, and three more months of heating remaining until we reach peak SSTs in the Atlantic, ocean temperatures across the entire Caribbean and waters between Africa and the Lesser Antilles are about the same as they were during the peak week for water temperatures in 2009 (mid-September.)

Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen: this is going to be a rough summer.

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Gregory Gadow

Gregory Gadow