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USAF aircraft fly over burning Kuwaiti oil wells
Aerial view of oil wells on fire
The oil fires caused a dramatic decrease in air quality, causing respiratory problems for many Kuwaitis.

The Kuwaiti oil fires were a result of the scorched earth policy of Iraqi military forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991 after conquering the country but being driven out by Coalition military forces (see Gulf War).

The resulting fires burned out of control because of the dangers of sending in firefighting crews. Land mines had been placed in areas around the oil wells, and a military cleaning of the areas was necessary before the fires could be put out. Somewhere around 6 million barrels (950,000 m3) of oil were lost each day. Eventually, privately contracted crews extinguished the fires, at a total cost of US$1.5 billion to Kuwait.[1] By that time, however, the fires had burned for months, causing widespread pollution.

The byproducts of the petroleum burn caused pollution to the soil and air, and the oil fires have been linked with what was later called Gulf War Syndrome. Whether this syndrome has been caused by the oil fires, by chemical attack, or other causes has not been determined, and the longterm environmental effects of the fires have yet to be fully understood.

During Operation Desert Storm, Dr. S. Fred Singer debated Carl Sagan on the impact of the Kuwaiti petroleum fires on the ABC News program Nightline. Sagan said we know from the nuclear winter investigation that the smoke would loft into the upper atmosphere and that he believed the net effects would be very similar to the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815, which resulted in the year 1816 being known as the Year Without a Summer, in massive agricultural failures, in very serious human suffering and, in some cases, starvation.

He predicted the same for south Asia, and perhaps for a significant fraction of the northern hemisphere as well as a result. Singer, on the other hand, said that calculations showed that the smoke would go to an altitude of about 3,000 feet (910 m) and then be rained out after about three to five days and thus the lifetime of the smoke would be limited.[2]

In retrospect, it is now known that smoke from the Kuwait Oil Fires dominated the weather pattern throughout the Persian Gulf and surrounding region during 1991, and that lower atmospheric wind blew the smoke along the eastern half of the Arabian Peninsula, and cities such as Dhahran and Riyadh, and countries such as Bahrain experienced days with smoke filled skies and carbon fallout.[3]

The companies responsible for extinguishing the fires are Red Adair Company (now sold off to Global Industries of Louisiana), Boots and Coots (now Boots and Coots/IWC), Wild Well Control, Safety Boss, Cudd Well/Pressure Control, Neal Adams Firefighters, and Kuwait Wild Well Killers. All the wells were eventually fully extinguished and brought back under control.



By the eve of the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait had set production quotas to almost 1.9 million barrels per day (300,000 m3/d), which coincided with a sharp drop in the price of oil. By the summer of 1990, Kuwaiti overproduction had become a serious point of contention with Iraq.

Some analysts have speculated that one of Saddam Hussein's main motivations in invading Kuwait was to punish the ruling al-Sabah family in Kuwait for not stopping its policy of overproduction, as well as his reasoning behind the destruction of said wells.[4]

Environmental impact

see also: Nuclear Winter

An oilfield on fire
A 2008 picture of the mummified remains of a bird, encrusted within the top hard layer of a dry oil lake in the Kuwaiti desert.

Immediately following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, predictions were made of an environmental disaster stemming from Iraqi threats to blow up captured Kuwaiti’ oil wells. Speculation ranging from a nuclear winter types scenario, to heavy acid rain and even short term immediate global warming were presented at the World Climate Conference in Geneva that November.[5][6]

Nearly 700 oil wells were set ablaze by the retreating Iraqi army and the fires were not fully extinguished until November 6, 1991, eight months after the end of the war.[7] The fires consumed an estimated six million barrels of oil daily.

Their immediate consequence was a dramatic decrease in air quality, causing respiratory problems for many Kuwaitis. The sabotage of the oil wells also impacted the desert environment, which has a limited natural cleansing ability. Unignited oil from the wells formed about 300 oil lakes that contaminated around 40 million tons of sand and earth. The mixture of desert sand with the unignited oil and soot formed layers of "tarcrete" which covered nearly five percent of the country.[8] Cleaning efforts led by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and the Arab Oil Co., who have tested a number of technologies including the use of petroleum-degrading bacteria, produced significant results. According to a 1992 study from Peter Hobbs and Lawrence Radke daily emissions of sulfur dioxide were 57% of that from electric utilities in the United States, emissions of carbon dioxide were 2% of global emissions and emissions of soot were 3400 metric tons per day.[9]

Pre-war claims of widescale, long lasting and significant global environmental impacts were not borne out and found to be significantly exaggerated by the media and speculators[10] At the peak of the fires, the smoke absorbed 75 to 80% of the sun’s radiation. The particles were never observed to rise above 6 km and when combined with scavenging by clouds gave the smoke a short residency time in the atmosphere and localized its effects.[9]

Vegetation in most of the contaminated areas adjoining the oil lakes began recovering by 1995, but the dry climate has also partially solidified some of the lakes. Over time the oil has continued to sink into the sand, with as yet unknown consequences for Kuwait's precious groundwater resources.[4][11]

Popular culture

The fires were the subject of a 1992 IMAX documentary film, Fires of Kuwait, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film includes footage of the Hungarian team using their jet turbine extinguisher. The Kuwaiti oil fires are also featured in Werner Herzog's 1992 film Lessons of Darkness.

The oil fires and black rain were also featured in the 2005 film Jarhead, as well as the video game Eternal Darkness. There was also a flyover of the oil fires in the movie Baraka. The Discovery Channel filmed a documentary series about "The Inventors" which interviewed Branko Babic about his Displacement Tube and Counter Pressure Plugs, patent applied for inventions designed to contain the burning oil wells.

See also


  1. ^ Husain, T. (1995). Kuwaiti Oil Fires: Regional Environmental Perspectives. Oxford: BPC Wheatons Ltd. pp. 68.  
  2. ^ "FIRST ISRAELI SCUD FATALITIES OIL FIRES IN KUWAIT". Nightline. ABC. 1991-01-22. Transcript.
  3. ^ Patrick K. Dowling. "The Meteorological Effects of the Kuwait Oil Fires".  
  4. ^ a b "The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf". The Trade & Environment Database. American University. 2000-12-01. Retrieved 2007-02-14.  
  6. ^ Wilmington morning Star January 21’st, 1991
  7. ^ GulfLink Summary of Oil Well fires
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Airborne Studies of the Smoke from the Kuwait Oil Fires. Peter V. Hobbs and Lawrence F. Radke, Science. May 15, 1992
  10. ^ Environmental impact of the Gulf War: An integrated preliminary assessment. Hosny Khordagu, Dhari Al-Ajmi. Environmental Management, Volume 17, Number 4 / July, 1993M
  11. ^ Heather MacLeod McClain (2001). "Environmental impact: Oil fires and spills leave hazardous legacy". CNN. Retrieved 2007-02-03.  

Against the Fires of Hell: The Environmental Disaster of the Gulf War. Hawley, T. M., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1992.

The story of Branko Babic a lone inventor, was documented by the Discovery Science Channel “The Inventors” on shown on Sky TV.

External links



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