Nature Seen Cleansing Kuwait’s Oil Pollution : Environment: A U.S.-sponsored study of emissions from fires finds no danger of global climate changes.
Although Kuwaiti oil well fires are spewing as much as 2 million tons of carbon dioxide and 5,000 tons of soot into the air each day, natural cleansing processes will prevent a disastrous buildup of pollutants, a government-sponsored scientific team reported Monday.
Participants in the study, coordinated by the National Science Foundation, agreed that the pall created by an estimated 500 oil wells fires still raging in Kuwait will have a substantial effect on weather in the Persian Gulf area. But they said they found no evidence that the blazes will cause global climate changes or atmospheric pollution.
One of the study’s most encouraging conclusions, based on evidence gathered by teams of scientists during 35 flights aboard airplanes equipped with special instruments, is that water vapor is attracting the oily smoke particles. As a result, rainfall is contributing significantly to the cleansing of the air.
The study is the most detailed assessment made to date of the inferno left behind by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s retreating occupation forces. But its conclusions were immediately challenged by Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that dispatched its own seven-member scientific team to the area at about the same time as the government study was being made.
“Contrary to government and press reports about things getting back to normal and slow progress being made, we are here today to tell you that the situation in the Kuwaiti oil fields is going from bad to worse,” said James George, a former Canadian ambassador to Kuwait who led the Friends of the Earth team. “Huge lakes of oil are beginning to catch on fire, the most serious oil fires have not been extinguished, and fires continue to spread.”
George reiterated concerns, largely discounted by members of the government team, that the outpouring of smoke could affect the temperature of the Indian Ocean, playing havoc with monsoon rains and Indian food harvests.
Leaders of the government-sponsored study acknowledged that the fires have fouled the air over a huge geographic area. Smoke from the blazes has spread across a region equivalent to the distance from New York to the Florida peninsula, reaching an altitude of 18,000 feet, Peter Hobbs of the University of Washington told reporters at a press conference here.
As a result, Bahrain, 250 miles to the south of the burning oil fields, experienced its coolest May in 35 years, with a mean temperature about 7 1/2 degrees below the historic average.
But while the smoke has continued to rise, Hobbs said it appears that significant amounts of smoke will not reach the stratosphere, where wind currents would carry it around the Earth, causing persistent pollution and perhaps climate effects over the entire the globe.
Participants in the government-sponsored study declined to speculate on the potential health effects of long-term exposure to air contaminated with soot and microscopic droplets of oil. Their data will be used as raw material for future studies focused on health and other environmental consequences of the fires.
In a separate press conference, Friends of the Earth Vice President Brent Blackwelder said the threat posed by the fires and the oil spill in the waters of the Persian Gulf continues to mount. Blackwelder accused the U.S. government of playing down the seriousness of the crisis in the “glitter and glitz” of Persian Gulf War victory celebrations.
Members of the NSF team expressed mild surprise that some of the fires are producing light colored smoke. But Adam Trombly, a physicist on the Friends of the Earth expedition, said the ground is becoming so hot that water from aquifers beneath the desert is flashing into steam.
And while the government study suggested that volatile gases are being consumed by the flames shooting up from the wells, Trombly suggested that pollutants may be transported into the stratosphere and cause further damage to the Earth’s already depleted ozone layer.