General Question

troubleinharlem's avatar

If Hurricane Alex happened to have lightning, and if its in the Gulf Coast with all of the oil, is there a possibility that it would turn into a giant fireball?

Asked by troubleinharlem (7976points) June 26th, 2010

I’m not sure if Hurricanes create lightning, but its plausible. And since that + oil wouldn’t be so great anywhere else, why should this be different? Is there any danger of a gigantic oceanic fire?

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16 Answers

LuckyGuy's avatar

That is a great question. Here’s my guess: No.
Sea water is both a very good conductor and a large heat sink. The energy from any electrical hit would get dispersed and dissipated faster than your last paycheck.
If the strike hit some oil soaked floating booms then I’d say there was a chance.

TrickyZZZZ's avatar


So under that logic I should be able to poour gasoline onto solid rubber bricks laid out over an industrial size heat sink, light it, and not have it ignite….. not going to try.

I don’t think it will ignite, but I doubt that’s the reason.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@TrickyZZZZ I’m with @worriedguy on this one. In your scenario, you said “light it”. That indicates holding a heat source there until it ignites, rather than the split second electrical current that is a lightning strike.

The other important thing to remember is that the oil coming out of the drill site is crude oil, meaning that it has many different hydrocarbons of different chain lengths. The shorter chain ones will ignite easily, but it takes a lot of heat for the longer chain hydrocarbons to ignite. My guess is that the short exposure to heat would not be enough to ignite most of the longer chains, since heat dissipation (according to Newton’s law of exponential decay) is heavily heat dependant.

tadpole's avatar

seriously interesting question….i can’t imagine what damage that would do to the o-zone layer, air pollution etc…

LuckyGuy's avatar

@TrickyZZZZ Solid rubber bricks are not good conductors – neither of heat nor electricity. I wouldn’t try it. Also gasoline vaporizes and forms an explosive layer above the surface. Oil sitting on the water has had time to evaporate or,unfortunately put into solution, any volatiles.

A good conductor will extinguish or redirect an open flame. Try sending flame through a metal screen . It does not pass. Look up flame arrestors and alcohol lamps. .

PandoraBoxx's avatar

@troubleinharlem, BP is burning the oil in an effort to control the slick and slow the oil reaching shore. The gas coming up with the oil through the water gets trapped under the oil and mixes with the water. The crude burns at a slower rate than the gas would. Think of it as the difference between how a gas grill burns, and how bacon grease in the oven or stovetop would burn. With the oil, you get a slow, sustained smoky burn. The gas is a cleaner, hotter burn.

Danger of a massive fireball would come from a significant earthquake along the New Madrid fault, which lies in an area rich in natural gas wells. The seismic activity along this fault does not happen with the frequency you see in California, but when it does, it can be felt all the way to NYC and Montreal.

ETpro's avatar

@troubleinharlem Having been through more than my share of hurricanes, including three direct hits, let me assure you they produce massive thunder storms and lightning. It is not uncommon for some of the embedded thunder cells to also produce tornadoes. So the answer is yes, a hurricane or large tropical storm could light oil on top the water on fire.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The more oil that burns out in the middle of the gulf, the less will reach shore. Also, the oil is already broken up into rather small patches on the surface due to all the chemical dispersant BP is using to try to hide the size of the spill. The dispersant is making the ecological disaster far worse, breaking up the oil so that it cannot be recovered en masse, but nobody has stoped the perpetrator from continuing to tamper with evidence at the crime scene. The whole mess is a very sad commentary on human nature and the US belief that less government is better and no government at all is best.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

Slightly off topic, but if lightning were to ignite the oil, could it seal the leak closed? Nothing I’ve seen in the news makes any mention of how to ultimately stop the leak, instead of just getting rid of the oil. (Kinda like shutting the barn door, and all that.)

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Dr_Dredd Unfortunately it seems they are letting it spill until the seam is at a low enough pressure to try the same old methods again.
I think they should be drilling a second hole, applying the lessons learnt from the first time, which would reduce the pressure in the bad one and allow them some time to drop a few tonnes of thermolite on it from a deep water submarine.

mammal's avatar

no this is not a great question, please be sensible and try not to sound like a bad Dan Brown book. I’m aware of Hurricane Alex Higgins though.

tadpole's avatar

i admit the answers given make me realize i know nothing about this, but from such a point of view i was interested to know what people thought…not being a scientist….where does Dan Brown come into it? do you think most people know the answer to the OP’s questions?

ETpro's avatar

@Dr_Dredd No, unfortunately, even lightning would have no chance of reaching the blowout preventer. It is under a mile of water. Some dimwit proposed using a tactical nuclear device to fuse the sea floor into glass above the well, but there hasn’t been much enthusiasm for this suggestion. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, besides the sea floor rupturing and the entire oil pocket coming ashore reeking of radioactive waste!

@mammal I gave @troubleinharlem a GQ on this one. I see nothing at all silly or supercilious about the question. It is a very legitimate concern with a hurricane looming. Hopefully, the wave action would further disperse the oil and make any resulting fires small, but a large batch washing ashore while burning in not inconceivable. Short of what might happen with a tactical nuke, that would be my worst-case scenario, and it is possible. So far, Murphy hasn’t missed a single day on this job site. If anything can possibly go wrong, it will.

JLeslie's avatar

I would guess there are lightening storms going on quite often in the gulf in the last 50 days. I don’t think we have to wait for a hurricane. If I remember correctly August/September were the worst months for thunderstorms when I lived in FL, so I guess we have that to look forward to.

troubleinharlem's avatar

@mammal : If you think its stupid, then don’t respond. It’s that easy, geez.

Andreas's avatar

@troubleinharlem I’ve just read an article on that seems to be allied to what you have asked. But it’s not about a fireball in the Gulf Coast, but the evaporation of parts of the crude oil. Here’s the link and let us know what you think.

BTW This is, so far, theoretical and worst-case scenario.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

@ETpro A tactical nuke?! Jeez, talk about crazy ideas. The person who proposed that one obviously has been watching too many disaster movies…

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