Tropical storms and hurricanes are among the largest and most destructive weather phenomena on earth. In the continental United States alone, it’s estimated that tropical cyclones have caused an average annual damage of $10 billion since 1900, according to a study in the Natural Hazards Review. And lying in the paths of these monsters are thousands of offshore drilling platforms and thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines.
When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita threatened the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, it was estimated that 2,900 offshore drilling platforms were in their paths. Both storms followed similar tracks across the central Gulf, on a beeline toward Louisiana and Texas. Katrina had winds of 175 mph at one point, just shy of Rita’s 180 mph winds. Katrina ended up being the costliest natural disaster the U.S. has ever seen, while Rita would later go down in the record books as the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. In their wake, 109 platforms were destroyed, along with five drilling rigs.
That was just one year after Hurricane Ivan roared through the northeastern Gulf and knocked hundreds of fuel pipelines out of commission through mudslides of moving ocean sediment. It’s thought that most of the damage was from separations on pipelines and risers and in locations of relatively shallow water.
Four years after Ivan, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, in 2008, combined for damage to oil and gas infrastructure, resulting in an average of 1.1 MMbopd in production being shut-in, along with 5.5 Bcf/d of shut-in gas. The Department of Economic Development calculated that disrupted oil and gas production cost $8-10 billion.
This highlights another important risk factor of hurricane impacts: It’s not just the potential damage and lost production, but also the threat to refining operations. While production in the Gulf of Mexico is a much smaller percentage of the national total than 10 or 15 years ago, the downstream refining continues to be concentrated in parts of the Gulf Coast. In fact, according to the EIA, almost 45% of the refinery capacity of the entire U.S. is concentrated in just two Gulf states – Texas and Louisiana.
“We hear from our energy clients and contacts that their big concern is a tropical system hitting these major refinery areas,” said Earth Networks’ James Aman, a WeatherBug meteorologist. “Storm effects could be either direct damage to the refinery, or else secondary impact such as long-term power outages. Even a weaker system that stalled and caused extreme rainfall and widespread flooding could affect refinery operations.”
Why The Active Outlook?
Despite the migration of crude oil and natural gas production to more inland U.S. basins over the last several years, the yearly Atlantic hurricane outlook is still an important element needed to protect the remaining Gulf-derived energy. Coincidentally, the recent inland move of these energy platforms has followed the uptick of hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin since 1995.
One of the strongest factors for overall hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin is a weather cycle called the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO). It is defined by several decade-long periods of warmer and cooler sea surface temperatures of the basin. When the AMO is in a “warm” phase, hurricane activity generally increases markedly, and when it’s cool, the opposite is true. For almost the last 20 years, the AMO has been in a warm phase, and in response, there have been some very active tropical seasons during this time. The 2013 season is expected to continue this trend.
WeatherBug meteorologists are anticipating 14-18 named storms to form in the Atlantic Hurricane Basin this year which includes the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Seven to 10 of these storms are expected to become hurricanes, while three to five of those could become major hurricanes with winds in excess of 111 mph.
The long-term annual average for the 30-year period from 1981-2010 is 12 storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
Driving this year`s forecast, along with the AMO, are near-to-slightly above-normal water temperatures throughout the Atlantic Basin, along with the lack of El Nino or La Nina patterns occurring in the Pacific. In fact, this season is expected to be an El-Nino “neutral” year.
“We expect sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic to be warmer than average. This is part of a 20-30 year cycle that began in 1995 and has corresponded to increased hurricane activity,” said Earth Networks-WeatherBug meteorologist Julie Gaddy.
In comparison, the Colorado State University tropical forecast team has predicted an above-normal season with 18 tropical storms, nine hurricanes and four major hurricanes this year. The federal government`s hurricane forecast, issued in late May, predicts 13 to 20 named storms, seven to 11 hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes this year.
This forecast continues the streak of busy hurricane seasons over the last two decades, when there were 19 named storms in 1995, 28 named storms in record-breaking 2005 and 19 named storms each in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – all well above normal.
Developments in gas and oil technology have helped to lessen the effect of these storms in the Gulf of Mexico. The EIA estimates about 6% of U.S. natural gas and 19% of crude oil production still comes from the Gulf region. Lessons learned from destructive storms like Katrina, Rita and Ivan have made the oil and natural gas industry better at securing platforms and quicker at making repairs. Additionally, all rigs and platforms are now equipped with GPS devices.
Despite all the improvements, though, there are still many older oil structures that remain vulnerable to hurricanes. Along with this, recent hurricane research has yielded data that shows gas and oil structures may have to contend with stronger and higher waves in a hurricane than previously thought. With another decade or more of increased tropical activity expected, Gulf of Mexico oil rigs and pipelines will still be at risk from the destructive power of hurricanes.
For further information, visit www.eia.gov, hwww.eda.gov and www.usa.gov/Topics/Weather/Hurricane.shtml
John Bateman joined the Meteorological Operations Department of Earth Networks-WeatherBug (www.earthnetworks.com), a Maryland-based firm that collects and analyzes atmospheric observations using the world’s largest weather-monitoring and lightning detection networks, in 2010. Prior to this, Bateman was a television broadcast meteorologist and reporter for 15 years. He has a master’s degree in geoscience from Mississippi State University.