The Gulf War: Five Years After
Air Date: Week of January 12, 1996
Using satellite images, scientists continue to track oil pollution damage to the Persian Gulf region resulting from the war there five years ago. Professor Farouk El-Baz of Boston University speaks with Steve Curwood on recent research findings.
CURWOOD: Pillars of thick black smoke, oil fires shooting flames thousands of feet into the night air. Shore birds of the Persian Gulf mired in gobs of oil. Nightmare images of environmental disaster come true. The Gulf War began 5 years ago this month when coalition forces launched their assault to drive Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army back across the line drawn in the sand. And according to Professor Farouk El Baz, director of Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing, the sand hasn't been the same since. Since the end of the war, Professor El Baz has been studying the region for the Kuwaiti government. He reminds us that much of the environmental damage was done not only during the 100 days of fighting, but in the 8 months of preparation for the war.
EL BAZ: The desert surface is naturally protected by a layer of pebbles It is one grain thick, and took many thousands of years, perhaps 5,000 years to form. Then that layer is an armor that protects everything underneath it from dust and wind. So when the soldiers are there, and they run over this layer with their tanks and big machines, and when they build berms and dig ditches for their armament and dig ditches for themselves to sleep in and so on, that layer is completely destroyed and the whole desert soil becomes exposed to the action of wind again.
CURWOOD: Many of us remember the pictures of the oil wells on fire there. Just how extensive was that kind of damage?
EL BAZ: Many people said that this was the view from hell, and it really was like that. I was in Kuwait with the first civilian flight from Cairo to Kuwait, and we actually descended through the smoke, because that is the approach to the runway and airport. We found out that that massive black cloud was formed of mostly oil droplets, and so this mass of oil slide into the atmosphere and parts of it get deposited on the surface of the desert because it's heavy. And they mix with the sand and the gravel on the ground and they make a very hard layer of rock.
CURWOOD: So this is quite a mess. On the one hand you had the surface of the desert torn up, its protective layer of gravel that takes thousands of years to accumulate gone so the sand could start blowing. On the other hand you have all this oil coming out of the wells, a bit of it burning but most of it just spraying and then landing on the ground and the water. Five years after all of this, how much of this mess remains?
EL BAZ: We have measured over a thousand new sand dunes that have actually formed since the war, and they are dried now, on the move, will approach roads in the desert and will approach airfields in the desert. So these dunes are going to be with us for a very long period of time. And the other effect that will be long lasting is the fact that the layer of solid materials, we had to find a name for it so we called it tarcrete, because it is like concrete but made of tar --
CURWOOD: This is from the oil that was sprayed in the air in the fires.
EL BAZ: That's correct. And that layer is now being covered by the moving sand, and it will be a whole new layer in this surface of Kuwait; naturally it killed all of the vegetation beneath it so one of the long-term effects will be that on the natural vegetation in the desert of Kuwait.
CURWOOD: What about along the coast in the Persian Gulf itself? How has the coastal environment fared in the aftermath of the war?
EL BAZ: As you know, oil is lighter than water so it stays on top. And the water in the Gulf is rather warm, so the oil tends to evaporate fast. And all of the lighter components of the oil, like the benzene and kerosene and so on, immediately evaporate. What is left behind are the heavier components, like the tar. And some of these things, the tar left over, would descend back toward the bottom of the ocean, of the Gulf. If they land on coral reefs, they just suffocate the coral and the coral die. If they land on the bottom of the sea, they gently move around until they are covered by a layer of sand, and that will remain there maybe again forever.
CURWOOD: You paint such a bleak picture. Is the environment in the Persian Gulf ever really going to heal itself again?
EL BAZ: In may ways a great deal of healing has occurred. In one way, the movement of sand on top of the layer of tarcrete that resulted from the fires is healing of sort. Because you don't really want tar to be exposed on the surface of any desert, because it has poisonous components, and if animals eat parts of it the vanadium or the nickel might poison them and so on. So you need that to be covered. In addition, the material that is underwater, the fact that it is being covered by a layer of sand right now, is part of the healing. Because if the tar itself had killed the shrimping grounds and the pearling grounds and so on where it landed, the layer of sand would be a whole new layer that new life could form on top of it. And we've actually seen new life. So there is a great deal of natural healing. But just to bring it to home, we found out that nearly 30% of the desert surface of Kuwait was affected drastically in one way or another. That is like saying all of the land east of the Mississippi would have been affected by something or other in the United States.
CURWOOD: And so, to Kuwait how much is all this worth, do you think?
EL BAZ: It would be in the billions.
CURWOOD: Professor Farouk El Baz is the director of Boston University's Remote Sensing Center. He joined us by telephone on his way to Kuwait, where he is studying the lasting environmental damage caused by the Gulf War.
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