Tropical Storm Bonnie Forms, Heading for Florida and BP's Gulf Oil Spill

Tropical Storm Bonnie has formed south of the Bahamas and is on a track to move across the southern tip of Florida and into the oil-fouled waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The storm has maximum sustained winds of 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers), and is expected to build strength as it bears down on the Florida Keys tomorrow, according to a special hurricane center advisory issued at 6:15 p.m. Miami time.

“Data from an Air Force Hurricane Hunter reconnaissance aircraft in the last hour indicate that surface winds associated with the depression have increased to 40 mph,” the center said in the advisory.

Forecasters are watching the storm closely to see what it will do when it enters the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend and whether the track will take it directly over the BP Plc oil spill, the worst in U.S. history. The hurricane center’s track estimate predicts the storm will go ashore southeast of Lafayette, Louisiana, on the afternoon of July 25.

The track increases the threat to the spill region, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground. He said a tropical storm with winds of 50 mph would push oil into the Louisiana marshes and into Lake Pontchartrain, above New Orleans.

Gulf Threat

“Oil production in the central to western Gulf should monitor this system for possible increases in intensity, but most rigs can withstand tropical-storm-force winds fairly well,” said Travis Hartman, energy manager and meteorologist with MDA EarthSat Weather.

The Gulf accounts for about 31 percent of U.S. oil output and 10 percent of its natural-gas production and is home to seven of the 10 busiest ports, according to the Energy Department.

The storm is just above the threshold of 39 mph needed to become a tropical storm. Tropical storm warnings were issued for the central and northwestern Bahamas, as well as Florida’s east coast from Golden Beach to the Keys. A warning for the state’s west coast extends as far north as Bonita Beach.

“Winds near tropical storm force are already affecting portions of the southern Bahamas,” according to the hurricane center advisory. “Weather conditions will begin to deteriorate on the Florida coast and Florida Keys within the warning area on Friday.”

Storm Warnings

A warning means tropical storm conditions are expected within 36 hours, the hurricane center said. A tropical storm watch has been issued from Golden Beach to Jupiter Inlet including Lake Okeechobee.

Florida is the world’s second-largest citrus producer behind Brazil.

The storm is forecast to leave as much as 7 inches of rain in some parts of the Bahamas and as much as 4 inches across southern Florida, according to the hurricane center. The storm is centered about 200 miles southeast of Nassau.

Bonnie becomes the second storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which is expected to be one of the most active seasons on record, according to forecasters, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Colorado State University.

Colorado State researchers are calling for 18 storms to form and NOAA has forecast 14 to 23 storms. An average Atlantic season has 11 storms, according to the hurricane center.

Oil Slick in Path

Jim Rouiller, a senior energy meteorologist at Planalytics Inc. in Pennsylvania, said he doubts the storm will be able to achieve hurricane strength as it moves across the Gulf because of a high-pressure system over the southern U.S. As the storm moves along the edge of that system, upper-level winds will prevent the storm from gaining strength.

“I remain quite concerned of how this tropical storm will impact and move this oil slick toward the upper Gulf Coast line, even to include a westward shift toward the upper coast of Texas,” Rouiller said.

A second disturbance off the eastern coast of Mexico has a 50 percent chance of further development.

It was bringing thunderstorms to the Bay of Campeche, the southernmost portion of the Gulf of Mexico, site of the Cantarell oil field, the largest in Mexico. Petroleos Mexicanos, Latin America’s largest oil producer, last month evacuated workers from offshore platforms as Hurricane Alex swept through the region.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net

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