Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Oil Fires Not a Big Threat, Some Say Several Scientists Dispute Forecast That Burning Kuwaiti Wells Will Have Nuclear-Winter Effect

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Oil Fires Not a Big Threat, Some Say Several Scientists Dispute Forecast That Burning Kuwaiti Wells Will Have Nuclear-Winter Effect

Article excerpt

EVEN if the Gulf war does result in major oil well fires and oil spills, the environmental consequences may be much less severe than forecast earlier this month.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has threatened to release large amounts of oil from wells into the Gulf and to set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells if the US and its allies attack Kuwait. (A US military spokesman said Tuesday that Iraq had blown up some Kuwaiti wells and storage tanks.) Unconfirmed press reports assert that Iraq has mined 300 Kuwait wells.

If all these wells were set fire and burned for a few years they still would not throw enough smoke high enough into the atmosphere to affect the world's climate, says Richard Small, contradicting the predictions of other scientists. The director of Thermal Sciences of the Pacific Sierra Research Corporation, Dr. Small says "it just simply is not a large enough amount (of smoke) to cause a temperature change."

The oil spill threat may also have been overstated. If major oil spills occurred or if Saddam Hussein made good his threat to pump oil into the Gulf, most of it would sink to the bottom within a month once the sandstorm season began early this spring, says Jerry Galt, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association who has done mathematical analyses of oil-spill movement.

Earlier this month Abdullah Toukan, science adviser to Jordan's King Hussein, and several other scientists warned that burning oil wells could have a nuclear-winter effect, putting so much smoke and dust into the atmosphere that the sun would be obscured, Earth's temperature would cool in some areas, food production would be reduced, and acid rain would damage croplands.

That scenario is exaggerated, Dr. Small says, adding however that there would be "a massive amount of pollution," whose effect would be regional.

Setting fire to wells is "the kind of threat that Saddam Hussein throws out on the table, just as he has (threatened) to fill the Gulf with oil," says United States Energy Secretary James Watkins. …

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