The Kuwait Oil Fires

In the final stages of the Gulf War in February 1991 between 500 and 600 oil wells were set alight by the retreating Iraqi army. These wells continued to burn for several months, kept alight by oil and gas brought to the surface under pressure from the underlying oil fields. During that time they added massive amounts of smoke, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen to the atmosphere. Most of these products were confined to the lower half of the troposphere, with the top of the plume never exceeding 5 km. At the height of the fires it was estimated that sulphur dioxide was being added to the atmosphere at an equivalent rate of 6.1 million tonnes per year, and soot at 6.4 million tonnes per year (Johnson et al. 1991). Although most of the original emissions were retained in the region as the result of stable air masses, those aerosols that had reached higher in the atmosphere were carried northeastwards bringing acid rain to Iran and black snow to the mountains of Pakistan. Several months later, unexpectedly high levels of carbon soot in the upper troposphere above Japan were also identified as products of the oil fires (Okada et al. 1992).

With particulate mass densities of 500-1,000 pgm-3, the impact of the pollution cloud on incoming solar radiation was spectacular. Beneath the centre of the plume the shortwave radiation flux was measured at zero (Johnson et al. 1991). This led to daytime temperature reductions beneath the cloud of as much as 5.5°C (Seager 1991), and although some infrared radiation was returned from the cloud it did little to ameliorate the cooling. Mean monthly temperatures between March and September were reduced by 0.8 to 2.4°C, and record low mean monthly temperatures were established in July and August (Shaw 1992). With large amounts of energy being intercepted by the plume and absorbed by the soot particles, the plume itself warmed up. In earlier assessments of the impact of the oil fires it was suggested that such internal heating would be sufficient to cause lofting of aerosols into the stratosphere, which would in turn increase the climatic consequences of the fires (Pearce 1991a). This did not happen, however, perhaps because of the low altitude of the initial plume, and the rapidity with which the fires were extinguished. As a result, although the fires had a regional climatic impact, the global prognostications, which included the failure of the Asian summer monsoon, did not come to pass (Pearce 1991a; Johnson et al. 1991).

The Basic Survival Guide

The Basic Survival Guide

Disasters: Why No ones Really 100 Safe. This is common knowledgethat disaster is everywhere. Its in the streets, its inside your campuses, and it can even be found inside your home. The question is not whether we are safe because no one is really THAT secure anymore but whether we can do something to lessen the odds of ever becoming a victim.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment