Having surpassed the Lakeview Gusher of 1910-1911, and the Gulf War oil spill of 1991, and certainly far surpassing the famous Exxon Valdez spill, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest oil spill in history.
The presence of such a massive amount of oil in the Gulf has led to much speculation of what would happen in the event of a hurricane, given that the spill is in a part of the world with much hurricane activity. The consequences would likely be a mix of making the situation better and making it worse.
In some respects, a hurricane in the area of a huge oil spill could actually be beneficial. According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, a violent storm would churn the water and tear the oil slick apart, dissipating it and facilitating the natural processes of evaporation and biodegradation.
However, there is also the potential that in other ways a hurricane would make a disastrous situation even worse. Though not, as some people fear, because the hurricane would somehow lift the oil up into its storm clouds and cause oily rain to fall over land. Anything like that is considered unlikely or impossible.
The problem instead lies with the storm surge.
With Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the storm surge wreaked havoc as much as twenty miles inland. Were that to happen when the Gulf is coated with oil, that would mean oily water reaching that far inland, causing massive damage and an unholy mess.
Remember also that a great deal of chemical dispersant is spread over an oil spill. These chemicals are not fully safe by a long shot, but as long as they are being used far from human habitation it is considered a reasonable tradeoff to helping clear the spill. But in the case of a hurricane storm surge that brings large quantities of oily water inland, these chemicals would also be part of that hurricane debris.
So while in some respects a hurricane could help clear a massive oil spill, it could also spread the oil damage to areas that would otherwise be out of range.
Another concern is what might happen in a case like the Deepwater Horizon spill where much of the oil is not on the surface, but well below. A major hurricane can churn the water hundreds of feet beneath the surface. No one knows for certain just what short and long term effects there could be to putting the Gulf of Mexico in a blender like that when it contains so much oil.
In conclusion, while it cannot be predicted with certainty what would happen if a hurricane struck the Gulf when it is strewn with oil, there is a realistic possibility that the harm could outweigh the benefit to a catastrophic degree.
John Blackstone, “Will Hurricanes Help Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up?” CBS News.
Eric Staats, “Effects of hurricane on Gulf oil spill uncertain, experts say.” Scripps News.