January 24, 1991

Article at Reuters

Soot from Kuwaiti oil fires to hit North America in two weeks

By Wilson da Silva

SYDNEY – Soot from burning Kuwaiti oilfields, some of which were set ablaze this week by Iraqi troops, would spread as far as China and North America within two weeks, Australian scientists predicted on Thursday.

Climatologists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Melbourne said projections using a Cray supercomputer forecast that soot from the fires would spread through most of the northern hemisphere within 14 days.

If soot from the fires reached the stratosphere, the highest layer of the atmosphere, it could cause some darkening of the sky in regions downwind of the fires.

But Dr Willem Bouma of the CSIRO’s atmospheric research division said the soot was unlikely to be pushed high enough to change the climate.

“The true climatic effects are far too uncertain,” he said.

“We know the atmosphere would carry the soot far and wide and spread it over a large area, but talk about darkening skies or ‘nuclear winter’ is speculation.”

The nuclear winter theory predicts that after nuclear bombardment huge amounts of soot from fires would be thrown into the air, darkening the sky and plunging the Earth into an unnatural winter.

Richard Turco of the University of California, regarded as a pioneer of theoretical computer models, told the “New Scientist” magazine last week that oil fires burning for a month could release three million tonnes of black smoke into the upper atmosphere and obscure up to a fifth of the world’s skies.

CSIRO atmospheric research chief Dr Brian Tucker said his group’s global climate prediction did not take account of rainfall, common in Africa and other areas in January, nor of smoke dispersal.

Rainfall would wash the soot from the air, and winds would likely disperse smoke from the fires before they caused major climatic problems.

Some atmospheric scientists have said a huge conflagration, igniting major oilfields in Kuwait and Iraq, could give rise to conditions approaching those created by the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, which darkened the skies of Europe for months.

But Tucker disagrees: “In my opinion it is quite a different problem. If the soot does get up (into the stratosphere) there could be some localised, short-term climatic effects. But I don’t think that will happen.”

A U.S. military spokesman on Tuesday said aerial photographs showed Iraq had blown up some oil wells

and storage tanks at al-Wafra field in the Kuwaiti portion of the Neutral Zone shared with Saudi Arabia on Kuwait’s southern border.

Already some soot may have washed away. Iran’s news agency IRNA said black, greasy rain – caused by the burning oilfields – had poured for 10 minutes on the Iranian coastal Bushehr province, about 250 km (160 miles) east of Kuwait.