Millions at risk in war's aftermath

March 4, 1991

By Peter Boyle

The days are now shorter in Kuwait. Sometimes in early afternoon the sun is blocked out by clouds of black smoke from the hundreds of burning oil wells. Kuwaiti Oil officials estimate that it might take up to four years to put out these fires if they can be extinguished at the most optimistic rate. Similar fires blaze in Iraq. In neighbouring Iran, black rain has fallen.

In Kuwait and Iraq, bodies have to be buried and the maimed to be tended. Finding food, water and shelter will be the immediate concern of many people for quite a while. The darkened sky may seem simply a strange backdrop to the aftermath of a faraway war, but it portends a new round of suffering for millions of people.

There are many environmental consequences of the Gulf War — most of which have yet to be assessed. These range from the effects of the bombing of nuclear reactors, water supply and irrigation works in Iraq to the oil slick in the Gulf and the burning oil wells. It is, however, the last of these which environmentalists fear could have the worst consequences.

Scientists don't know all the effects of oil fires in the Gulf, Joe Wolff, the past president of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, told a recent Sydney public meeting organised by Greens Against the Gulf War, because oil fires on this scale simply haven't been experienced before.

In particular, scientists cannot predict accurately the effects these fires may have on the climate. But what is known about oil fires indicates that the possible effects could be devastating, he warned.

Burning oil produces carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and water. It might be argued that the oil would be burned anyway, at some time or another, as fuel. But in an oil well fire, there is only incomplete burning because of poor oxygen supply, and other by-products such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide (which comes down as acid rain) and great quantities of soot (almost pure carbon but also some aromatic hydrocarbons, which can cause cancer) are emitted.

In the past, large volcanic eruptions and forest fires had major climatic effects. In 1883 the volcano Krakatoa erupted and the clouds caused a reduction in world temperatures of 0.27° C and reduced the intensity of sunlight in France by 20%. Volcanoes don't produce as much soot as oil well fires. A better comparison might be the Siberian forest fires of 1915, which lowered local temperatures by 2-5° C.

Like nuclear winter

Scientists have varying estimates of the amount of soot that will be produced by the oil fires in the Gulf. Richard Turco of the University of California, a pioneer in modelling the nuclear winter effect, told Science in January that 3 million tonnes of smoke could be released into the atmosphere in just one month.

A consultant to oil companies in the Gulf, John Cox, estimated then that only 500,000 tonnes would be released in a month, reported the tist. Cox was one of several scientists who addressed a London conference on the environmental consequences of a Gulf War early this year. Nevertheless, Cox expected that the oil fires would have a serious environmental consequences.

Then, it was not known how many wells might be lit, and Kuwaiti Oil engineers expected that it would take a year, not four years as they now expect, to extinguish all fires.

Soot clouds absorb a lot of heat. As they warm, they can cause a temperature inversion which creates a stable formation of cloud, shading the affected area for a long time.

The low rainfall pattern in this desert region (especially in the coming summer months) could delay the dispersal of these clouds even longer. This could cause what been called a "mini-nuclear winter effect" — lower summer daytime temperatures (by 10-20° C in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, according to Turco), crop failures and the destruction of entire ecosystems.

This would be a double blow because the destruction of irrigation and water supply systems by US and allied bombers already promises an agricultural disaster in Iraq.

The intense heat from the burning wells could send some of the soot high into the upper atmosphere, where it could block out sunlight even more effectively and shade a greater area of the world.


Cox warned that the "mini-nuclear winter" effect could extend for a radius of 1500 kilometres from Kuwait. But the greatest danger could be the effect on the Asian monsoons, he added.

The summer monsoons bring the rain that sustains agriculture to feed more than a billion people in Asia. They arise each year because the air temperature above the Asian land mass heats up faster in summer than the air over the surrounding ocean. The hot air rises, sucking in cooler oceanic air. A giant pall of smoke over the Indian subcontinent could reduce the temperature above the land and shut down the monsoon.

Cox warned that if the oil fires lasted just a year, they could influence the onset, duration and character of the monsoons. Even a partial failure of the monsoons could cause more deaths than the total population of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia combined through a combination of floods, droughts and crop failure.

With environmental consequences like these, who set fire to which oil field is beside the point. A war that was predicted to have such terrible environmental consequences should and could have been avoided,

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