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Tropical Storm Alex expected to become a hurricane

Tropical Storm Alex could send oil skimmers back to port and make containment booms useless, even from some 500 miles away, according to authorities overseeing the Gulf oil spill cleanup. But the rough weather also might give nature a hand in breaking down crude from the massive oil spill.

Forecasters expected Alex to grow to hurricane strength late Tuesday over the southwestern Gulf on track for the Texas-Mexico border region and away from the oil spill area off Louisiana, according to media reports.

But it will blow waves and stormy winds all the way to the open Gulf, where BP is working to cap and contain the oil, and the coastal waters tinged with crude.

Waves churned up by Alex could help break up the patches of oil scattered across the sea. The higher-than-normal winds that radiate far from the storm also could help the crude evaporate faster.

"The oil isn't in one solid sheet. It's all broken up into patches anyway. It will actually work to break those patches down," said Piers Chapman, chairman of the oceanography department at Texas A&M University, told the Associated Press.

But skimming vessels may be idled because they can't operate in such swells. Floating oil-containment booms could be rendered useless by waves slopping over them and may have to be pulled out of the water.

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