Global effects doubted from oil fires

June 25, 1991|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- The Kuwaiti oil fires have caused local temperatures to drop and left miles of blackened desert and smog, but are not likely to change global weather or climate, National Science Foundation scientists said yesterday.

The smoke plume, which darkens an area long enough to stretch from New York to Florida, has not risen into the upper atmosphere where it could be whipped around the globe to catastrophic environmental effects, the scientists said at a news conference.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth immediately disagreed with the conclusions of the NSF scientists, saying the U.S. government was trying to downplay the effects of the oil well fires because they would detract from victory celebrations at home.

The group, which has just completed its own scientific assessment of the situation, called for a large-scale international effort to put out the fires.

Both scientific groups agreed that the 500 fires now burning at least 3 million barrels of oil a day are causing serious problems in the region as far as 250 miles south of Kuwait City.

"This is as close as I would like to get to hell," said Peter Hobbs, from the University of Washington, describing his flights over the burning fields on the NSF trip May 10 through June 14. "We are burning half the daily U.S. import of oil in an area the size of Manhattan."

Smoke from the fires extended from horizon to horizon and "appeared an infinite sea of smoke," said Lawrence Radke, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who headed the NSF research with Dr. Hobbs.

The smoke cover shields sunlight and lowered average temperatures in Bahrain by 7 1/2 degrees F in May. Temperatures on the oil-drenched desert closer to the fire have risen, however, because the black asphalt-like surface now soaks in the sunshine.

A good percentage of the oil is not burning in the fires, Dr. Radke said. When airplanes flew into the smoke clouds 100 miles downstream from the fires, their windshields were coated with droplets of oil.

The NSF scientists said they do not believe there will be global effects because the smoke is not reaching the stratosphere, a layer of the atmosphere which begins at about 35,000 feet and in which the smoke could quickly sweep around the planet.

NSF measured the smoke as high as 22,000 feet and said it and the oil are precipitating out of the sky in several days rather than reaching the stratosphere. The average volcanic eruption deposits more particles into the upper atmosphere, the scientists said.

However, the fires are producing about 5,000 tons of soot a day and 1 million to 2 million tons of carbon dioxide -- about 1 percent to 2 percent of the world's total emissions from all sources.

Friends of the Earth argued even that amount is significant because attempts to lower the emissions of carbon dioxide -- a major gas contributing to global warming -- were aimed at 1 or 2 percent.

In addition, the fires could affect global weather, such as a 2-degree drop in worldwide temperatures this winter and the interruption of the monsoon season in India, which produces water for crops there, said Adam Trombly, a physicist and climatologist with the Aspen Institute of Advanced Studies, who joined the Friends of the Earth team.

Officials with the international organization, which raised the money for its own scientific team to visit the area in May and June, showed pictures of huge lakes of burning oil near the wells. They predicted the fires would get larger and grow farther out of control as well casings rupture.

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