Gulf war's soot clouds threaten Islamic countries Global Viewpoint

Carl Sagan & Richard Turco

January 31, 1991|By Carl Sagan and Richard Turco

ITHACA, N.Y. — OIL IS not only a chief cause of the war, not only fuel for the machinery of war, but also now a weapon of war. A vast oil spill, the largest in human history, is spreading through the Persian Gulf, threatening the ecology and desalinization plants of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

Before the war is over, pollution of this sort may attain a still more unprecedented scale. But there is a military use of oil that is still more ominous: massive injection of soot into the atmosphere. In the fall of 1990 Iraq announced that, under some unspecified circumstances, it was prepared to set fire to all 363 productive oil wells in Kuwait.

On Jan. 22, 1991, U.S. reconnaissance satellites detected plumes of dark, sooty smoke erupting from several refineries and wells in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait -- perhaps a harbinger of the promised full conflagration. The smoke rose and was carried by the winds across the Persian Gulf to Iran, where some of it fell to the ground as "black rain." The rest continued moving eastward.

What would happen if there were extensive petroleum fires in the war zone? Kuwaiti oil wells are, of course, not the only possible sources of soot. There are also wells, refineries and petroleum storage depots to burn in Iraq -- some of which were reportedly on fire because of military action of the coalition allies -- in Saudi Arabia, the other gulf Emirates and, if the war expands and old scores are settled, in Iran.

There is stored oil in ports, ships and pipelines. There are natural gas wells. And, of course, there are cities. We have calculated what might happen if only the active oil wells in Kuwait burned.

Smoke would be blown by the prevailing westerlies over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and South China. The higher the smoke rises, the further east it is blown before it falls out or is rained out of the atmosphere.

Soot is very close to the darkest material known in nature. Fine particles of soot absorb sunlight and warm up the surrounding air, which then expands and rises, carrying the suspended soot with it. This ability of soot to pull itself up by its bootstraps is called self-lofting. It is predicted by the physics of the problem and has been demonstrated in experimental fires. As a result, there are plausible circumstances in which the soot from Kuwaiti fires would rise many kilometers into the air and be carried great distances across South Asia.

Capping an oil-well fire is risky business. It takes the best teams in the world (and there are few of them) a week to several weeks to do it. Quickly capping 363 oil well fires in a war zone is impossible.

The fires would burn out of control until they put themselves out. This, it is thought, would take months, and perhaps as long as a year. So, if these fires were set in winter, say, they might continue to burn through spring and summer at least. This is the growing season for many crops.

Soot would pour into the air and fall or be rained out of the air. The resulting soot might well stretch over all of South Asia. In some circumstances, it could be carried around the world.

Even if it only covered South Asia, the consequences could be dire. Beneath such a pall sunlight would be dimmed, temperatures lowered and droughts more frequent. Spring and summer frosts may be expected.

Agriculture is vulnerable. One night of below-freezing temperatures is enough to destroy the Asian rice crop. A temperature decline of 3 or 4 degrees Celsius can destroy the Canadian and U.S. Midwest grain crop.

A real-world example can be found in the aftermath of the explosion of Mt. Tambora, an Indonesian volcano, in 1815. The two cases are not the same: Tambora injected a large quantity of fine transparent particles into the stratosphere; Kuwaiti fires at their worst would inject much smaller amounts of much darker particles, but not to as high an altitude. However, the amount of sunlight that got through the Tambora cloud (which covered much of the Northern Hemisphere) and what we calculate from a massive Kuwaiti oil-fire pall are about the same.

The year 1816 was known variously as "the year without a summer," "poverty winter," "the year of the beggars," and in New England, "1800-and-froze-to-death."

Agriculture failed from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. Dead birds dropped from the skies onto the streets of New York. There were food riots in England and France, famine in Ireland and Italy, and dearth conditions in the Ottoman Empire. Nutritional and other diseases became widespread.

The only piece of good news that emerges from this analysis is that the smoke could not rise high enough to damage the ozone layer, and the amount of carbon dioxide produced even by the burning of all Kuwaiti oil wells is not nearly enough to increase the greenhouse effect measurably.

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