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Q & A: Gulf oil feedbacks?

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Most recent answer: 06/15/2010
Q:
I have a question about crude oil amd water. Does crude oil absorb and/or retain more heat than salt water? I was trying to figure out whether this mess of an oil spill will act as a catalyst in increasing ocean temps in the Gulf of Mexico. I think it would, but I don't know much about the properties of oil in water. Also, if the temps rise, then would that increase the hurricane activity? Is there a chance that the additional heating (if any) could circulate into the Atlantic, with the Gulf almost acting as a tankless hot water heater?
- Michelle Herndon (age 29)
Williamstown, NJ USA
A:
These are obviously timely questions, so I'll try to answer now. I know some of the answers and will guess at others.

The key question about the oil is whether it absorbs more or less sunlight than the water. I'm not sure, but don't think it's a huge effect. Try looking for raw satellite pictures to see whether the slick seems to be reflecting more or less light than the bare water. More reflected means less absorbed.

Whatever happens to temperatures in the Gulf does indeed circulate out into the Atlantic via the Gulf Stream.

I don't think that the ocean surface part of the slick will last so long as to make any big climate difference. The big problem is the underwater toxic part and the destruction of coastal habitats.

As for hurricane activity, the general consensus is that increasing water temperature does increase the frequency of severe hurricanes. Modeling storm behavior involves some complications, however.

Mike W.

(published on 06/15/2010)

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