With the start of hurricane season less than 10 days away, the idea of an Ivan, Charley or Katrina plowing through the Deepwater Horizon oil slick is fueling a sense of urgency about the ocean-floor gusher.
"A hurricane is certainly going to spread out the oil and take it places it hasn't been yet," said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist of Weather Underground.
"It could drive the oil inland," said Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center. "A lot would depend on the storm, its strength, how much oil there is, and the depth there is to the oil."
However, the situation is unprecedented. "We're on new turf here," Feltgen said.
How likely is it that a hurricane would hit the Deepwater Horizon spill? Forecasters at Colorado State University are predicting 15 named storms that will spawn eight hurricanes this year.
According to Masters, June tropical storms tend to form in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the average there has been one June storm every two years since 1995. He predicted a 20 percent chance of a June tropical storm in the gulf that would "interact with the oil spill."
Still, the possibility so concerned Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum that he sent a letter to BP's attorneys this week about it. McCollum warned them that a hurricane would "capture the oil in its path and deposit it much further inland than under normal tidal conditions," causing extensive damage to the state's environment and economy. McCollum told BP that any additional damages will be charged to the company.
He's not the only one worried. Ron Kendall, chairman of the Department of Environmental Toxicology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, told National Geographic: "You put a major hurricane in there, you're liable to have oil in downtown New Orleans."
Although it threatens to bring death and destruction, a hurricane could actually help with the oil spill, said Gil McRae, director of the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
"If the flow were capped, there's no question a real big storm would act like a macro-level dispersant," McRae said. By whipping up the surface oil with its circular winds, a hurricane would break the slick apart, he explained, and that "would speed the degradation of the oil into tar balls."
However, he added, "the resources that are now deployed to deal with oil would be stretched even thinner." Probably a lot of the people now working on coping with the oil disaster would be reassigned to preparing for the hurricane's expected landfall, he said.
A storm would do more than just force a redeployment of people working on Deepwater Horizon. A hurricane "would first halt containment operations," noted senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski of Accuweather.
"Rough seas would dislodge or destroy protective booms, rendering them useless as the storm draws closer," he pointed out.
Worse still, a hurricane might drive oil into the sediment just offshore, where it would be hard to clean up.
Something similar happened with the Ixtoc I spill in 1979, when a rig blew up near the Yucatan and spewed oil for nearly a year, dumping more than 3 million barrels of crude into the gulf.
Two months after the initial blowout, tar balls began washing ashore in Texas. Soon the state's entire coastline was coated. Tourism dropped by 60 percent.
Texas officials launched a beach cleanup, but then a tropical storm came along and pushed the oil offshore again. The crisis seemed to be over.
However, the oil residue formed "tar reefs" just off the coast. For about eight years, every time a storm hit, pieces of the tar reefs would break off and coat the beach with goo all over again.
Ironically, after Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi, some scientists proposed that the way to calm down violent hurricanes was to spray oily substances on the surface of the water just ahead of the storm.
But experiments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that winds blowing hard enough to constitute a hurricane — more than 74 mph — weren't calmed at all by an oil slick. Instead they tended to whip the slick into a spray.
Some oil has already entered the loop current, a highway of warm water that flows north past the Yucatan peninsula and curves eastward, then flows south again along the Florida coast. The oil could show up as tar balls in the Florida Keys in the next week to 10 days, or it could become trapped in an eddy and be sent back into the gulf.
Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that 3 million barrels of oil flowed from the Ixtoc I spill.