A Weapon Beyond Control : Environment: The pall of soot from torched gulf oil facilities would spread famine to noncombatants across Asia.


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. This week, a vast oil spill, the largest in human history, was spreading through the Persian Gulf, threatening the ecology and the desalinization plants of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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

Last Tuesday, 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 facilities are, of course, not the only possible targets (there are more in Saudi Arabia and Iraq itself), but we have calculated the effect of just their burning:

Soot is close to the darkest material known in nature. Fine particles of soot absorb sunlight, warm up and heat 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.


Smoke from the Kuwaiti fires would be blown by the prevailing westerly winds over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and South China. The higher the smoke rose, the farther east it would travel before falling or raining out of the atmosphere.

Soot would pour into the air at a certain rate and fall or be rained out of the air at a certain rate. The resulting steady-state amount of soot might well stretch over all of South Asia. In some circumstances, it could be carried around the world. Perhaps as much as 20% to 40% of the Northern Hemisphere might be covered by the pall.

Even if it covered only South Asia, the consequences could be dire. Beneath such a pall sunlight would be dimmed, temperatures reduced and droughts more frequent. Spring and summer frosts could be expected. One night of below-freezing temperatures is enough to destroy the Asian rice 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 very 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, “eighteen hundred-and-froze-to-death.”

Agriculture failed from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. Dead birds in large numbers 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.

Of course, we cannot be certain that this extent of cooling and darkening of the ground would be the result of massive burning of Kuwaiti oil fields. But this endangerment of the food supplies of hundreds of millions of people, at least in South Asia, appears to be likely enough that it should affect the war plans of the nations involved.

Traditional military wisdom holds that even remote contingencies must be taken into account if their consequences are serious enough. Since many of the nations most in danger are Islamic, Iraqi war planners might wish to reconsider torching the Kuwaiti oil fields, even as a gesture of defiance. And coalition forces might want to avoid targeting large numbers of petroleum and natural gas facilities in Iraq.

The use of oil as a weapon can put vast numbers of civilians at risk. Add to this the pervasive local and regional pollution from the routine peacetime use of fossil fuels, and the extremely serious long-term danger of global warming from the same cause, as well as the risky dependence on foreign imports of oil, and it is reasonable to ask whether there are alternatives.