Oceans, caught between devil and the deep blue sea… (Pun intended!) – XVII

Gulf War Oil Spill – 1991.


The most massive oil spill in the world history was during Gulf war (Iraq war) in 1991. 

Gulf spill 10

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, provoking instant condemnation from the international community.  The UN immediately imposed economic sanctions, while President George Bush Senior organized a 32-nation military coalition and dispatched US troops to Saudi Arabia.

The coalition’s assault began with bombing raids on January 17, 1991, and, just one week later, Iraq deliberately dumped millions of gallons of crude oil from Kuwait’s Sea Island terminal into the Persian Gulf, apparently to prevent US Marines from landing. This wanton sabotage produced the worst oil spill in history, and other sources of leaking oil – several damaged tankers, a Kuwaiti oil refinery and an Iraqi oil terminal – exacerbated it. Some 770 km (478 mi) of coastline, from southern Kuwait to Saudi Arabia’s Abu Ali Island, was smothered in oil and tar, wiping out almost all plant and animal species living there and destroying an already fragile ecosystem.

Gul war spill map.jpg

Map showing location of oil wells burnt in Kuwait and oil spilled in Persian Gulf

The total amount of oil released into the Persian Gulf was approximately at 6 to 8 million barrels (or 252 to 336 million gallons).  Many oil wells in Kuwait were destroyed and set on fire, resulting in the release of much more enormous amounts of oil and combustion products to land, air, and water in Kuwait.

Coalition forces accomplished their mission of ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait, and the war was over by February 28. However, during the fighting, it had of course been impossible to deal with the disastrous slick, which covered 1,550 sq km of the sea’s surface, and was about 13 cm (5 in) thick.

The Persian Gulf contains superb coral colonies and beds of seagrass and algae that are home to dugongs and sea turtles as well as fish and birds, all of which were severely affected, as were the coastline’s many beaches, mangrove swamps, and salt marshes.

Total ecological destruction (marine and otherwise too) was only devastating. 

As per the studies later published, more than 800 oil wells were blown up, of these more than 600 caught fire and burned with flames and about 50 wells gushed oil onto the ground. The maximum amount of burnt oil and gas in the oil fires was about 3,55,000 tons and 35 million cubic meters respectively per day. The SO2 emissions for the burning oil and gas have been estimated to about 20,000 tons per day and the total SO2 emission about 24,000 tons per day. The CO2 emission from the burning oil and gas in Kuwait has been estimated to about 130 to 140 million tons.  That amount corresponds to around 3% of the global annual anthropogenic (originating from human activities) contribution from the use of fossil and recent fuels.  Levels of particles in the air a few kilometers from the burning oil fields were in the order of about 105 per cm3. This quantity corresponds to 10% of the global contribution from burning of recent and fossil fuels. Soot and oil covered extensive areas in Kuwait, northern Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf. The vegetation, as well as wildlife, was exposed to this fallout but no or very scattered information is available about environmental aspects.

The marine environment was exposed to large quantities of petroleum hydrocarbons, the volume of the spills into the seas was to the tune of 1.7 million tons. The tank farms on land (Al Ahmadi North), oil loading viii terminals (Sea Island and Mina Al-Bakr (Iraq) and oil carriers (ships) anchored along the Kuwait coast – released oil into the seas. The spill was broken up into several smaller spills which contaminated most of the Saudi Arabian coastline consisting of sand, gravel, wetlands, lagoons, and muddy tidal flats, sometimes covered by vegetation was all contaminated. Some oil ended up on the beaches of Kuwait, Iran, Bahrain, and Qatar but generally, these countries were less affected. The oil on the Saudi Arabian coastline ended up in shallow lagoons, wetlands, and flats covered with vegetation. Here the oil caused considerable damage caused primarily by the physical characteristics of the oil on the vegetation and animals in the intertidal zone. Hence most of the mangroves and marshes in the wetlands along the affected coast were destroyed by the oil. Fifty to 90% of the fauna of these areas, mainly crabs, Amphipoda, and mollusks, was also killed by the oil.

The large-scale clean-up that was carried out after the spill in many areas did contribute to increasing the damage and spreading the oil into previously unaffected areas. Studies from different subtidal areas along the Saudi Arabian coast on sand, mud and rock bottoms and in sea-grass beds showed minor or no effects at all among the fauna and flora at 1 to 6 meters depth and deeper areas.

Seabirds and waders were affected by direct oiling of feathers and due to the intake of oil primarily through preening.  Between 22 and 50% of the populations of several species of cormorants and grebes died as a result of the spill. 

Investigations of the presence of waders on the shores made during the acute phase of the war showed a reduction by almost 100%, and oil had contaminated most of the birds found. About 100,000 waders were killed directly or indirectly by the oil spill. Approximately 50 dugongs and several times as many dolphins were found dead on the beaches of Saudi Arabia after that spill.

Investigations of the populations of marine turtles showed that green turtles nested at average rates and with a hatching success similar to the figures for the years previous to the spill. For hawksbills the number of nests was normal, but the hatching rate was much lower than usual.

Gulf spill 15After the Gulf War was over, a massive clean-up was embarked on. Some of the oil was recovered, some were washed ashore, mainly in Saudi Arabia, and some evaporated. A long-term study monitored 22 separate locations in a Saudi Marine Wildlife Sanctuary: by 2007 six locations had returned to their previous state, two had not improved at all, and the remainder were still affected by various degrees of pollution. So, 16 years after the war, the area was far from fully recovered.


  1. The Environmental Impacts of the Gulf War 1991; by Olof Lindén, Arne Jernelöv, Johanna Egerup; International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria
  2. Incident news of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA)
  3. Devastating Disasters
  4. Wikipedia

Milind Joshi


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