Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Gulf Stream

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple
December 8, 2005

A couple of months back I discussed the North Atlantic Oscillation and how the British Meteorological Office was very concerned a flattening of the Atlantic's high and low pressure areas was going to make for an exceptionally cold winter in Northern Europe. This phenomenon also allows frigid Canadian air to make its way into the northeastern US resulting in higher prices for heating oil, diesel, gasoline, natural gas and nearly everything else. Winter is now two weeks away, and the British Meteorologists are still holding to their forecast of an unusually cold winter.

Last week, however, a new and more disturbing report was published by the Southampton Oceanography Centre in the UK concerning the stability of the Gulf Stream — a major heat source keeping Northern Europe from becoming Northern Siberia . It seems that since the last time they took measurements 12 years ago, the flow of fresh water from the melting of the north polar ice cap has interfered significantly with the Gulf Stream . Some 30 percent of the Stream’s warm water is no longer making it to the vicinity of Northern Europe , but is being diverted back towards the equator.

A drop of 30 percent in the flow should have been enough to cause an as-yet-to-happen drop in the average North European temperature. Some suggest the increasing world wide average temperature— global warming— is enough to offset the loss of heat from the Gulf Stream as far as Europe is concerned.

All this may only be an interesting (or perhaps not) academic debate, as not much seems to have happened to Northern Europe , as yet. However, what happens to the 30 percent of the warm water no longer making it to the North Atlantic ? I would like to thank Stuart Staniford of the web site The Oil Drum ( for explaining in detail that vast quantities of warm water are now flowing southward towards those regions of the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico where the hurricanes spawn.

Last week, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held a press conference on the 2005 Hurricane season. As we all suspected, the season shattered nearly every record ever kept about hurricanes. In short, it was two hurricane seasons rolled into one.

Moreover, NOAA says there is no relief in sight. The forecasters believe we are at the beginning of a 20-30 year era of increased hurricane activity. Now, if we learned anything from listening to those meteorologists describe the approach of all those hurricanes this year, it’s that warm water makes hurricanes and that very warm water makes very strong hurricanes.

In the last 15 months, three major hurricanes have slammed into our oil production facilities in the Gulf causing extensive damage. Six weeks after the last hurricane, about one third of Gulf oil production is still out of service. This new report that massive amounts of warm water are now flowing into the southward not only suggests, but screams, there are major troubles ahead. In the worst case, one or more hurricanes a year could slam into Gulf Oil production and refining facilities causing major production slow downs, very expensive and time-consuming rebuilding of facilities.

Work is already underway to strengthen our drilling rigs and production platforms to withstand the more powerful storms developing from the warmer water. But this is a slow process and hurricane seasons do not wait.

Looking beyond the oil industry, it’s obvious that year after year of numerous major hurricanes coming ashore along our southern coasts will quickly do serious damage to the US economy. At some point insurance (and therefore mortgages) for structures near hurricane prone shores simply will not be available.

The results of the recent survey were deemed so serious, oceanographers have moored a series of buoys across the Atlantic to continuously monitor the return flow of the Gulf Stream . In time, this continuous monitoring should answer the question of whether this shift in the Gulf Stream 's return flow is a short-term phenomenon or a long-term trend.

In the meantime, none of this bodes well for the price of oil and gas. A colder Europe will require more and more oil and gas to keep functioning, and frequent Gulf hurricanes will lead to a marked slowdown in oil production.

For now, there seems little we can do except to remember that the 2006 hurricane season is less than six months away.


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