Hurricanes could snap offshore oil pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico and other hurricane-prone areas, since the storms whip up strong underwater currents, a new study suggests
These pipelines could crack or rupture unless they are buried or their supporting foundations are built to withstand these hurricane-induced currents. “Major oil leaks from damaged pipelines could have irreversible impacts on the ocean environment,” the researchers warn in their study, to be published on 10 June in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
With the official start of hurricane season approaching on June 1, news reports about the Deep Horizon oil spill that began fouling the Gulf last month have raised questions about how a hurricane might complicate the unfolding disaster.
A hurricane might also create its own spills, the new research indicates. The storms’ powerful winds can raise waves 20 meters (66 feet) or more above the ocean surface. But their effects underwater are little known, although signs of seafloor damage have showed up after some hurricanes.
Based on unique measurements taken directly under a powerful hurricane, the new study’s calculations are the first to show that hurricanes propel underwater currents with enough oomph to dig up the seabed, potentially creating underwater mudslides and damaging pipes or other equipment resting on the bottom.
At least 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of pipelines reportedly snake across the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. Damage to these pipelines can be difficult to detect if it causes only smaller leaks, rather than a catastrophic break, the researchers say. Repairing underwater pipes can cost more than fixing the offshore oil drilling platforms themselves, making it all the more important to prevent damage to pipelines in the first place.
The researchers, at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory at Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, got an unprecedented view of a hurricane when Hurricane Ivan, a category-4 storm, crossed the Gulf of Mexico in 2004. The eye of the storm passed over a network of sensors on the ocean floor, put in place to monitor currents along the continental shelf in the Gulf.