WASHINGTON — THE BEGINNING of May, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii made an astonishing discovery. Scientists there who monitor the atmosphere discovered that particles of carbon soot were 20 times above their average level.
Studying this puzzling and potentially dangerous development, they made another discovery: These atmospheric visitors, these traveling particles of oil soot, came with Kuwaiti "passports."
Is it possible that in faraway Kuwait those 550 furiously burning oil wells -- those foster children of the Persian Gulf war -- are emitting carbon that could even create a "nuclear winter"?
That is the discussion emerging in scientific and government circles, and most disturbing of all is the fact that the American administration has until now halted the discussion.
Here is the basic rundown on this complicated story:
As they left the battlefield, the Iraqis blew up the great majority of Kuwait's 1,250 wells, and 550 were left burning. As May's Scientific American points out, estimates of the time needed to put out the fires range from two to five years. Meanwhile, 6 million barrels of oil go up in smoke every day, releasing yet more carbon particles into the atmosphere.
Everyone knows that the skies over Kuwait itself are a doomsday black. The once spit-and-polish little kingdom has truly become an environmental "Darkness at Noon," as the black rain from the fires coats everything. But now the discussion is going far beyond Kuwait or even the gulf.
Noted scientist Carl Sagan of Cornell University is one who takes an alarmist view. From early winter, he has been warning that there is a "self-lofting" mechanism by which the dark smoke, released by the burning oil wells, absorbs the sunlight and heats the air. This, he says, could perhaps loft the carbon particles through the jet stream as far as Hawaii.
Other scientists are far more skeptical of the danger. They aver that the soot actually is hugging the Earth and thus is no real
danger. But their sensitivity about the issue is worrisome. As one administration official said to me, with some impatience at being asked about the whole story: "Is 20 times the carbon rate significant? How would we know it came from the Persian Gulf? This may not be nice, but is it the Apocalypse?"
There are those who say it could be. Michael Adams, a retired Pentagon physicist, has been leading the fight to get the United States to take the next step and have American planes wet down the soot-laden carbon particles in order to stop the drift.
He compares what could happen to the historic explosion of Mount Tambora, the Indonesian volcano, in 1815. Skies became black across the world. The next year was known historically as "The Year Without a Summer," and there was frost in Boston in July.
But even if those dire warnings are extreme -- and they may not be -- there is one element in all of this that is unforgivable. That is the fact that, since the war, the Bush administration has effectively gagged even a discussion of the war's environmental effects among scientists.
Scientific American finally laid out the problems, printing a memo from the Department of Energy to researchers commanding that DOE facilities and contractors "immediately discontinue any further discussion of war-related research and issues with the media until further notice."
This memo, sent before the war had started, is puzzling indeed. At first, the order was apparently designed, the magazine says, to protect the war effort by not giving the Iraqis too much information. Yet, even today, researchers and meteorologists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are being ordered to withhold important information on the postwar gulf region.
Whether the order emanated from the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Defense (all are, for good reasons, suspect), it is wrong, wrong, wrong. We did not start the fires, and our efforts to put them out should not be tarnished. We should force the world to understand the consequences of this new ecological terrorism.