Burning oil wells could be disaster, Sagan says

Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan says Saddam Hussein's orders to torch Kuwaiti oil wells, if carried far enough, could unleash smoke clouds that would disrupt agriculture across South Asia and darken skies around the world.

"You need a very small lowering of the average temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere to have serious consequences for agriculture," Sagan said.


Scientists in Maryland and Colorado say such a disaster would require fires at hundreds of wells burning for months, but they agreed the potential exists in Kuwait for a "very catastrophic" environmental event.

Saddam Hussein has threatened to blow up Kuwait's oil fields if challenged by allied forces. He has also threatened to spill oil from tankers into the Persian Gulf and set it ablaze to foil amphibious landings.


Yesterday, U.S. military sources said that Iraqi forces had set fire to oil wells and storage tanks at al-Wafra, a small oil field in southern Kuwait, and that storage facilities were ablaze at the Shuaiba and Mina Abdullah refineries. The fires seemed intended to foil allied "smart" weapons and spy satellites.

Ali Juhail, an executive with Kuwait Oil Co. now in Bahrain, said the Iraqis had not blown up facilities at Magwa and Burgan, two of the largest oil fields in the world.

Regardless of any damage to Kuwaiti oil wells, world supplies will not be affected, analysts said.

The global energy market months ago discounted the availability of oil from Kuwait as other producers filled the void following the Aug. 2 invasion by Iraqi troops. After the occupation of Kuwait, a U.N.-sanctioned boycott against the Iraqis prevented them from selling Kuwait's oil.

Sagan and UCLA scientist Richard Turco have compared the potential for disaster with the 1815 explosion of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia. That event sent enough ash and debris into the sky to make 1816 the "year without summer" in the United States and caused crop failures in other parts of the world.

The climatic disruptions would be far less serious than the "nuclear winter" scenarios Sagan has helped to describe to Congress, based on calculations of the effects of smoke from whole cities ignited by thermonuclear war.

hTC The relative scale of the potential disaster in Kuwait has been suggested by other scientists, who have called it "Saddam Autumn."

Sagan laid some blame at Saddam's feet, saying "I have absolutely no inhibitions at saying that it is extremely irresponsible to unleash a set of climatic consequences to a bunch of nations that are no party to this conflict. And, if you look at them, most of them are Islamic."


But, "before we get on too high a horse," he said, "we ought to ask why the United States and the Soviet Union retain, even now, 55,000 nuclear warheads between them, when a few hundred would be sufficient to produce a nuclear winter, which would be much worse.

"The even broader lesson I would draw would be that we now have extremely powerful, even awesome technological means at our command, and we need, globally, a level of responsibility in understanding the consequences of this technology that is not yet in evidence."

John W. Birks is professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado, and co-author, with Max Planck Institute director Paul Crutzen, of the original 1982 nuclear winter theory. Birks said yesterday that significant climatic effects would result only if the Iraqis ignited 300 to 500 pressurized oil wells -- nearly half the Kuwaiti total.

That many wells would burn 2 million barrels a day, about half of Kuwait's pre-invasion production. In a month, the fires would pump 1 million metric tons of soot into the atmosphere, at which point the airborne pollutants would reach a balance, with new soot added at the same rate old soot washes out with rains.

"If they were ignited and burned out of control for several months, I believe you would begin to see environmental consequences in . . . Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India," Birks said.

The dark, sooty clouds would be "patchy," Birks said, but where they linger for several days, "I would expect sub-freezing temperatures to occur."


If the fires continue to burn into spring and summer, southern Asia could experience delays in reaching spring and summer temperatures. Agriculture could be damaged by outbreaks of cold and a change in the onset of the critical summer monsoon rains.

Alan Robock, a professor of meteorology at the University of Maryland, said forest fires in British Columbia in 1982 lowered temperatures in Baltimore by 7 degrees four days later.

Oil smoke is much blacker than is forest fire smoke, and blocks more sunlight, Robock said. "Climate models showed if you changed the smoke to oil smoke, temperatures would have dropped on the order of 15 to 20 degrees."

The scale of the disaster depends heavily on how many wells and storage facilities are set ablaze, and how much oil burns. Robock said surge arresters buried below ground on some Kuwaiti oil wells might limit the fires.

But Carl Sagan said "if the war expands, and Iraqi oil facilities are burning, and then those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the other gulf emirates, it could be considerably worse."

Also, once ignited, oil well fires are not easy to extinguish. Hundreds of them burning in a war zone could be expected to burn from "months to a year," he said.


In addition, he said, "we know from nuclear winter calculations . . . that there is a phenomenon called self-lofting . . . [in which] the soot absorbs sunlight, heats up, heats the surrounding air, and the hot air then rises, carrying soot with it. It produces a higher plume."

In an effort to judge the magnitude of such a disaster, Sagan and Turco tried to estimate just how much sunlight would be blocked, and looked for a natural example that would suggest the environmental impact.

They finally settled on the 1815 explosion of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia. The volcanic eruption was bigger, he said, but oil smoke is blacker and more effective in blocking sunlight. So, "the obscuration of the sun and the cooling of the Earth in 1816 may be comparable to what will happen in a systematic burning of all Kuwaiti oils wells."

In 1816, "there were serious, massive crop failures throughout the U.S., reaching from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, and in much of Western Europe," Sagan said.

Robock said there were killing frosts every month that year in New England, and grain prices in England reached record levels. The cold, gloomy weather in Switzerland that summer inspired Mary W. Shelley to write the novel "Frankenstein."