Kuwaiti oil fires

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Smoke plumes from the Kuwaiti Oil Fires

The Kuwaiti oil fires were caused by Iraqi military forces setting fire to more than 700 oil wells as part of a scorched earth policy while retreating from Kuwait in 1991 after invading the country but being driven out by Coalition military forces during the Persian Gulf War. The fires started in January and February 1991 and the last one was extinguished by November 1991.[1]


USAF aircraft fly over burning Kuwaiti oil wells
The oil fires caused a dramatic decrease in air quality, causing respiratory problems for many Kuwaitis.

The resulting fires burned out of control because of the dangers of sending in firefighting crews. Land mines had been placed in areas around the oil wells and military demining was necessary before the fires could be put out. Around 5 million barrels (790,000 m3) of oil were lost each day. Eventually, privately contracted crews extinguished the fires, at a total cost of US$1.5 billion to Kuwait.[2] By that time, however, the fires had burned for approximately ten months, causing widespread pollution.

The petroleum fires polluted both the soil and the air, and they have also been linked with what was later called Gulf War Syndrome; however, studies have indicated that the firemen who capped the wells did not report any of the symptoms that the soldiers experienced.[3] Whether this syndrome was caused by the oil fires, chemical attack, or other causes has not been determined, and the long-term environmental effects of the fires have yet to be fully understood.

During Operation Desert Storm, Dr. S. Fred Singer and Carl Sagan discussed the possible environmental impacts of the Kuwaiti petroleum fires on the ABC News program Nightline. Sagan argued that some of the effects of the smoke could be similar to the effects of a nuclear winter, with smoke lofting into the upper atmosphere resulting in global effects and that he believed the net effects would be very similar to the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815, which resulted in the year 1816 being known as the Year Without a Summer. He reported on initial modeling estimates that forecast impacts extending to south Asia, and perhaps to the northern hemisphere as well. Singer, on the other hand, said that calculations showed that the smoke would go to an altitude of about 3,000 feet (910 m) and then be rained out after about three to five days and thus the lifetime of the smoke would be limited. Both estimates turned out to be wrong, with the atmospheric effects remaining largely limited to the Persian Gulf region, but with smoke often lofting to over 10,000 feet (3,000 m) and sometimes as high as 20,000 feet (6,100 m).[4][5]

In retrospect, it is now known that smoke from the Kuwait oil fires affected the weather pattern throughout the Persian Gulf and surrounding region during 1991, and that lower atmospheric winds blew the smoke along the eastern half of the Arabian Peninsula, and cities such as Dhahran and Riyadh, and countries such as Bahrain experienced days with smoke filled skies and carbon fallout.[6]

The companies responsible for extinguishing the fires initially were Red Adair Company (now sold off to Global Industries of Louisiana), Boots and Coots, and Wild Well Control. Other companies including Safety Boss, Cudd Well/Pressure Control, Neal Adams Firefighters, and Kuwait Wild Well Killers were also contracted.


By the eve of the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait had set production quotas to almost 1.9 million barrels per day (300,000 m3/d), which coincided with a sharp drop in the price of oil. By the summer of 1990, Kuwaiti overproduction had become a serious point of contention with Iraq.

Some analysts have speculated that one of Saddam Hussein's main motivations in invading Kuwait was to punish the ruling al-Sabah family in Kuwait for not stopping its policy of overproduction, as well as his reasoning behind the destruction of said wells.[7]

Environmental impact[edit]

An oilfield on fire

Immediately following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, predictions were made of an environmental disaster stemming from Iraqi threats to blow up captured Kuwaiti’ oil wells. Speculation ranging from a nuclear winter type scenario, to heavy acid rain and even short term immediate global warming were presented at the World Climate Conference in Geneva that November.[8][9]

About 700 oil wells were set on fire by the retreating Iraqi army and the fires were not fully extinguished until November 6, 1991, eight months after the end of the war.[10] The fires consumed an estimated 6 million barrels (950,000 m3) of oil daily.

Their immediate consequence was a dramatic decrease in air quality, causing respiratory problems for many Kuwaitis. The sabotage of the oil wells also impacted the desert environment, which has a limited natural cleansing ability. Unignited oil from the wells formed about 300 oil lakes that contaminated around 40 million tons of sand and earth. The mixture of desert sand with the unignited oil and soot formed layers of "tarcrete" which covered nearly five percent of the country.[11] Cleaning efforts led by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and the Arab Oil Co., who have tested a number of technologies including the use of petroleum-degrading bacteria, produced significant results. According to a 1992 study from Peter Hobbs and Lawrence Radke daily emissions of sulfur dioxide were 57% of that from electric utilities in the United States, emissions of carbon dioxide were 2% of global emissions and emissions of soot were 3400 metric tons per day.[12]

A 2008 picture of the mummified remains of a bird, encrusted within the top hard layer of a dry oil lake in the Kuwaiti desert.

Scenarios that predicted serious environmental impact on a global level did not happen, though regional and long-lasting impacts, as noted above, were serious.[13] At the peak of the fires, the smoke absorbed 75 to 80% of the sun’s radiation. The particles rose as high as 20,000 feet (6,100 m), but were scavenged from the atmosphere relatively quickly.[12]

Vegetation in most of the contaminated areas adjoining the oil lakes began recovering by 1995, but the dry climate has also partially solidified some of the lakes. Over time the oil has continued to sink into the sand, with as yet unknown consequences for Kuwait's small groundwater resources.[7][14]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The 2004 film The Manchurian Candidate included a scene set in Kuwait in February 1991, with burning oil fields visible in the background.
  • In the 2005 film Jarhead, the oil fires burn continuously throughout the invasion of Iraq, and its effects—an unceasing rain of unburned oil and smoke-filled skies, feature prominently in the story.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wellman, Robert Campbell (14 February 1999). ""Iraq and Kuwait: 1972, 1990, 1991, 1997." Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change". U.S. Geological Survey. http://earthshots.usgs.gov. Retrieved 27 July 2010. 
  2. ^ Husain, T. (1995). Kuwaiti Oil Fires: Regional Environmental Perspectives. Oxford: BPC Wheatons Ltd. p. 68. 
  3. ^ Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses: Final Report, December 1996
  4. ^ Hirschmann, Kris. "The Kuwaiti Oil Fires". Facts on File. 
  5. ^ "FIRST ISRAELI SCUD FATALITIES OIL FIRES IN KUWAIT". Nightline. yes. 1991-01-22. ABC.
  6. ^ Patrick K. Dowling. "The Meteorological Effects of the Kuwait Oil Fires". 
  7. ^ a b "The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf". The Trade & Environment Database. American University. 2000-12-01. Retrieved 2007-02-14. 
  9. ^ Wilmington morning Star January 21’st, 1991
  10. ^ GulfLink Summary of Oil Well fires
  11. ^ http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2003/0321kuwaitfire.html
  12. ^ a b Airborne Studies of the Smoke from the Kuwait Oil Fires. Peter V. Hobbs and Lawrence F. Radke, Science. May 15, 1992
  13. ^ Environmental impact of the Gulf War: An integrated preliminary assessment. Hosny Khordagu, Dhari Al-Ajmi. Environmental Management, Volume 17, Number 4 / July, 1993M
  14. ^ Heather MacLeod McClain (2001). "Environmental impact: Oil fires and spills leave hazardous legacy". CNN. Archived from the original on 2006-12-22. Retrieved 2007-02-03. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Against the Fires of Hell: The Environmental Disaster of the Gulf War. Hawley, T. M., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1992.

External links[edit]