NASA image of the Gulf oil spill off of the Louisiana coast, May 1, 2010.
(USA TODAY) -- The otherwise disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could have an upside: If the slick is still there this summer, the oil could help put a damper on hurricane formation in the Gulf, by putting a barrier between the atmosphere and the ocean.
"The oil would have the effect of suppressing evaporation of ocean water into the air," says Dennis Feltgen, meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center. Tropical storms need warm ocean water to fuel their development.
"The impact would only be in the genesis of the storm," he added. But, he says, once wind speeds reach 40 mph, the oil's effect would be moot, as the storm's stronger winds would break apart the thin layer of oil.
A decades-long dream of hurricane researchers - some would call it a fantasy - has been to come up with ways to diminish the intensity or duration of tropical storms and hurricanes.
Ideas from scientists and the general public have spread the gamut from fanciful to far-fetched, such as cooling the ocean water by dragging icebergs into hurricane formation zones, to dropping nuclear weapons in their projected path. Check out this page from the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory to find out why those may not be such good ideas.
Last year, Bill Gates even came up with a wild plan, also involving cooling the ocean.
One idea, which seems to make some sense, is to spread some sort of substance over the ocean as a preventative barrier between the ocean and atmosphere. Some have suggested vegetable oil or other similar man-made substances. For better or worse, the oil slick would serve this purpose.
The chances of a hurricane forming in the Gulf in June may not be so outrageous: As seen on this map, most tropical storms that form in June tend to develop in the Gulf of Mexico or near the Southeast coast of the USA, as opposed to later in the season, when the formation zones shift out into the Atlantic.
However, as far as the oil slick actually affecting a developing storm, "an awful lot would have to come together for that to happen," says Feltgen.
The federal government's Climate Prediction Center will issue its seasonal hurricane outlook on May 20.