There have already been several posts about hurricane
Ike on Scienceblogs (1
but so far I haven’t seen anyone put the whole picture together.
We still don’t know exactly where Ike will hit, but it looks
increasingly likely that Ike will hit close to Houston. In
fact, the most recent (3PM EDT 11 Sept. 2008) damage model posted at The Oil Drum
indicates that it is likely to be a direct hit on Houston.
See The Oil Drum for interesting maps and
diagrams, if you like that sort of thing.
This time, the problem is not the oil rigs or the Louisiana
Offshore Oil Port (LOOP). Yes, oil rigs are being
evacuated and shut down; yes, this will lower the amount of oil and gas
that we get from the Gulf of Mexico. From The Oil
Drum (linked above):
Also, the MMS
reported Wednesday that staff has been evacuated from 452 production
platforms (63.0%) and 81 rigs (66.9%) – (95.9% of the oil
and 73.1% of the natural gas production has been shut-in as a
precautionary measure for Hurricane Ike.)
But the problem is not the impact to oil supply. It is much
more serious than that.
The problem is that up to 30 to 38% of our refinery capacity
could be taken offline for an unknown period of time.
Within the current NHC storm path lies about 5-6
million bpd of US petroleum refining capacity. (Perspective: 5 MMBBL is
about 30% of US capacity (about 15 MMBBL), and a bit less than 6% of
global capacity (~85 MMBBL).
A brief disruption would be no big deal. An extended
disruption would lead to good news and bad news. The good
news is that we would be using less oil, so the price could fall.
The bad news is that that reason we would be using less oil,
is that it would be sitting uselessly in storage, rather than being
used to make gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, and a zillion other
things that we need. Gas prices would skyrocket.
Production-side damage becomes irrelevant at that
At the Weather
Underground (one of the first good weather sites,
founded and still located in Ann Arbor), Jeff Masters explains why we
need to worry about Ike. What he says is that the
Saffir-Simpson category of the hurricane (1, 2, etc.) is not the most
important aspect. The Saffir-Simpson category is based upon
the wind speed.
Meteorologists are developing a different model. The new
model is based upon kinetic energy, as opposed to wind speed.
Ironically, the acronym is IKE: Integrated
The amount of water Ike has put in motion is about
10% greater than what Katrina did, and thus we can expect Ike’s storm
surge damage will be similar to or greater than Katrina’s. The way we
can estimate this damage potential is to compute the total energy of
Ike’s surface winds (kinetic energy). To do this, we must
look at how strong the winds are, and factor in the areal coverage of
these winds. Thus, we compute the Integrated Kinetic Energy
(IKE) by squaring the velocity of the wind and summing over all regions
of the hurricane with tropical storm force winds or higher. This
“Integrated Kinetic Energy” was recently proposed by Dr. Mark Powell of
NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division as a better measure of the
destructive power of a hurricane’s storm surge than the usual
Category 1-5 Saffir-Simpson scale. For example, Hurricane Katrina hit
Mississippi as a strong Category 3 hurricane, yet its storm surge was
more characteristic of a Category 5 storm. Dr. Powell came up with a
new scale to rate potential storm surge damage based on IKE (not to be
confused with Hurricane Ike!) The new scale ranges from 1-6. Katrina
and Wilma at their peaks both earned a 5.1 on this scale (Figure 2). At
12:30pm EDT today, Ike earned a 5.2 on this scale, the second highest
kinetic energy of any Atlantic storm in the past 40 years.
In other words, this is serious. This chart (from Weather
Underground) compares the IKE of Ike to other major storms:
There is a potential for loss of life. I heard on the news
(NPR) on the way home from work, that many people are evacuating.
But some are not. The evacuation for Rita was so
onerous, that some people are choosing to stay. That is a
Here is an excerpt from the NWS warning:
Shoreline of Galveston Bay… 15 to 25 feet
life threatening inundation likely!
All neighborhoods… and possibly entire coastal communities… will be
inundated during the period of peak storm tide. Persons not heeding
evacuation orders in single family one or two story homes may face
certain death. Many residences of average construction directly on the
coast will be destroyed. Widespread and devastating personal property
damage is likely elsewhere. Vehicles left behind will likely
be swept away. Numerous roads will be swamped… some may be washed
away by the water. Entire flood prone coastal communities will be
cutoff. Water levels may exceed 9 feet for more than a mile inland.
Coastal residents in multi-story facilities risk being cutoff.
Conditions will be worsened by battering waves closer to the coast.
Such waves will exacerbate property damage… with massive destruction
of homes… including those of block construction. Damage from beach
erosion could take years to repair.
So the economic damage is likely to be high. Damage to food
production will occur.
Sustainability advocates like to talk about the three
E’s: environment, economy, energy. With Ike, we are
likely to see all three in play.
The hurricane is a manifestation of environment, and may cause further
environmental damage. Of course, if it leads to a reduction
in fuel consumption, that could actually help a tiny bit.
It will disrupt energy supplies. For how long, we don’t know.
But right now, the economy is fragile. If energy
supply is disrupted, the economy will suffer.
When Katrina struck, our economy was still strong. We could
afford to take that hit. Not that we made all the investments
we should have, but we could have done so; we had the money.
crisis, the credit
carry trades, falling
retail sales, slowing
economy in Asia, declining
investment in emerging markets, European
financial woes, these all are varieties of what Ben Bernanke
likes to call “headwinds.”
He probably does not know how ironic that word choice may be.
Of course, predicting the economy is like predicting the weather.
You never really know until the storm is about to hit, and
sometimes not even then.
My point is this: Hurricane Ike has a high likelihood of causing
significant economic damage. It is something that we are
particularly ill-suited to withstand at this point in our Nation’s
history. Our policy of scrimping on infrastructure is going
to haunt us. Our policy of focusing on defending the country
against unlikely threats, while ignoring probable
threats, is going to hurt us.
Tomorrow, we will have a much better idea of the specific threat that
Ike poses. However, it will take months to get an
appreciation of the significance of the economic damage.