Speaking of: : Saddam's War on the Gulf's Environment

March 05, 1991

The 43-day Persian Gulf War has left a trail of environmental damage that may last for a generation. In an act of environmental terrorism, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf, threatening an ecosystem that was just starting to recover from damage sustained during Iraq's 10-year war with Iran. And Saddam's parting gift to Kuwait was to put the country's oil industry to the torch. At least 600 fires are reported in the country--more than 510 at wellheads. Moisture in the air has mixed with the smoke to produce greasy black rain in parts of Iran, threating to poison drinking water and harm crops. Smoke from the fires has blackened skies as far north as Turkey and as far south as Qatar. If the fires go unchecked, some experts believe that the smoke could enter the upper atmosphere and be swept by prevailing westerly winds over Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and even China.

Facts about the spill:

* The Gulf oil spill is actually three spills. The first was apparently released deliberately by Iraqi forces from a tanker terminal off the Kuwaiti shore. Its initial dimensions were estimated at more than 70 miles long and 30 miles wide.

* The second spill was believed to be caused by leakage from storage tanks in the Saudi coastal town of Khafji, hit by Iraqi artillery shortly after the war began on Jan. 17.

* The third slick is reported to have originated in an Iraqi oil facility in the far northwestern corner of the Gulf. It was not clear whether the spill was deliberate.

* Layers of oil up to 15 inches thick have been reported in the Gulf.

Facts about the fires:

* There are at least 600 fires in Kuwait, more than 510 of them at wellheads.

* Kuwaiti oil is rich in sulfuric and nitric acids that are certain to produce acid rain or black rain that could fall over thousands of square miles.

* Smoke from the fires have blackened skies as far north as Turkey and as far south as Qatar.

* The fires burned in two bands, one across northern Kuwait and a second across central Kuwait.

* Some experts say it could take more than a year to extinguish all the fires.

Facts about the gulf:

* It is 650 miles long and 220 miles wide. It narrows to 35 miles at the Strait of Hormuz in the south. Its average depth is 110 feet.

* Water current is counterclockwise. It takes three to five years for the water to be flushed out of the Gulf.

* It is home to about 3,650 species of animals, including about 50 species threatened with extinction--among them the bottlenose dolphin, dugong and green turtle.

ENDANGERED SPECIES A. King Mackerel B. Dugong C. Green turtle D. Tuna E. Socotra cormorant F. Bottlenose dolphin G. Arabian ghost crab H. Sperm whale I. Black-necked grebe J. Mugger crocodile K. Black-winged stilt L. Common gull M. Caspian tern N. Barracuda O. Mangrove tree

Some important species not shown are: snapper, sardine, anchovy, Siberian falcon, humpback whale.

Mud flats, coral reefs and sea beds

* The Gulf's mud flats are home to abundant sea life. Fish thrive among stands of coastal mangroves, and large numbers of snails feed on rich algae.

* The depth at which sea grass can grow is controlled by light penetration, and varies depending on the turbidity of the water. Grass growth is densest at depths where abundant light is available. A heavy coating of oil on the sea's surface blocks sunlight, which can hamper the growth of grass beds.

* The blocking of sunlight may also damage fragile coral reefs, and the oil could poison marine life that thrives around the reefs, such as shrimp, starfish, lobsters, urchins and a variety of fish.

The Life and Death of an Oil Spill

Dispersal and emulsification

Driven by waves, wind and currents, large oil spills can spread for hundreds of miles. As the oil is dispersed, the slick grows progressively thinner. Depending on the type of oil, the slick can be anywhere from several millimeters thick near the spill's source down to the 1 micrometer thickness of a rainbow-colored sheen at the leading edge of the oil slick. Rocky shorelines, such as Alaska's Prince William Sound, tend to "self-clean" from wind and wave action. But in soft-sediment lagoons or mangrove swamps, as is the case in the Persian Gulf, the oil can persist from years to decades. In shallow waters, sediments stirred up by waves, wind and currents can mix with the spilled oil. Oil floats on water, especially in salt water. But when mixed with sediments, the combined weight can result in the oily residue sinking below the surface. Some of it reaches the bottom and can have adverse effects on bottom-dwelling marine organisms like shellfish. After several days, emulsification occurs, in which the oil that remains on the water is whipped by wind and wave action into a frothy water-in-oil "mousse." As the oil absorbs water, the volume of pollution can be increased by three to four times.

Evaporation, photooxidation

In the first 24 to 48 hours of a spill, evaporation is the single most important weathering process. Aided by the oil's dispersion on the sea, most of the more volatile hydrocarbon components evaporate. This is believed to be responsible for the reduction of from one-third to two-thirds of an oil spill mass within a day. Initially, the spill is also affected by photo-oxidation, in which sunlight breaks down the oil. This process is far slower than evaporation, and its contribution to removing oil from the water is thought to be slight in the first few days. Natural microorganisms found in the sea also "eat" the oil as a source of carbon and energy in a process known as biological degradation or bioremediation. The organisms digest the carbon found in the oil, leaving behind an asphalt residue.

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