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The Gulf War oil spill was one of the largest oil spills in history, resulting from the Gulf War in 1991.[1][2] The apparent strategic goal was to foil a potential landing by US Marines. It also made commandeering oil reserves very difficult for US forces.[3] The immediate reports from Baghdad said that American air strikes had caused a discharge of oil from two tankers. Coalition forces determined the main source of oil to be the Sea Island terminal in Kuwait.[4] On January 26, three US F-117 fighter-bombers destroyed pipelines to prevent further spillage into the Persian Gulf.[5] Several other sources of oil were found to be active: tankers and a damaged Kuwaiti oil refinery near Mina Al Ahmadi, tankers near Bubiyan Island, and Iraq's Mina Al Bakr terminal.[6]

Environmental impact[]

Early estimates on the volume spilled ranged around 11,000,000 US barrels (1,300,000 m3).[7] These numbers were however significantly adjusted downward by later, more detailed studies, both by government (4,000,000 US barrels (480,000 m3) to 6,000,000 US barrels (720,000 m3)) [8] and private (2,000,000 US barrels (240,000 m3) to 4,000,000 US barrels (480,000 m3)) researchers.[9]

The slick reached a maximum size of 101 miles (160 km) by 42 miles (68 km) and was 5 inches (13 cm) thick in some areas. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the size of the spill, figures place it several times [10] the size (by volume) of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The New York Times reported that a 1993 study sponsored by UNESCO, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States found the spill did "little long-term damage": About half the oil evaporated, 1,000,000 US barrels (120,000 m3) were recovered and 2,000,000 US barrels (240,000 m3) to 3,000,000 US barrels (360,000 m3) washed ashore, mainly in Saudi Arabia.[11]

More recent scientific studies have tended to disagree with this assessment. Marshlands and mud tidal flats continued to contain large quantities of oil, over nine years later, and full recovery is likely to take decades.

Dr. Jacqueline Michel, US geochemist (2010 interview – transcript of radio broadcast):[12]

The long term effects were very significant. There was no shoreline cleanup, essentially, over the 800 kilometers that the oil – - in Saudi Arabia. And so when we went back in to do quantitative survey in 2002 and 2003, there was a million cubic meters of oil sediment remained then 12 years after the spill.... [T]he oil penetrated much more deeply into the intertidal sediment than normal because those sediments there have a lot of crab burrows, and the oil penetrated deep, sometimes 30, 40 centimeters, you know a couple of feet, into the mud of these tidal flats. There’s no way to get it out now. So it has had long term impact.

Dr. Hans-Jörg Barth, German geographer (2001 research report):[13]

The study demonstrated that, in contrary to previously published reports e.g. already 1993 by UNEP, several coastal areas even in 2001 still show significant oil impact and in some places no recovery at all. The salt marshes which occur at almost 50% of the coastline show the heaviest impact compared to the other ecosystem types after 10 years. Completely recovered are the rocky shores and mangroves. Sand beaches are on the best way to complete recovery. The main reason for the delayed recovery of the salt marshes is the absence of physical energy (wave action) and the mostly anaerobic milieu of the oiled substrates. The latter is mostly caused by cyanobacteria which forms impermeable mats. In other cases tar crusts are responsible. The availability of oxygen is the most important criteria for oil degradation. Where oil degrades it was obvious that benthic intertidal fauna such as crabs re-colonise the destroyed habitats long before the halophytes. The most important paths of regeneration are the tidal channels and the adjacent areas. Full recovery of the salt marshes will certainly need some more decades.

The Financial Times, in reference to the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, cited the 1993 optimistic assessment of the Gulf War oil spill as evidence that "Initial warnings of catastrophic environmental damage from oil spills can turn out to be overdone".[14]

See also[]


  2. Mughal, Muhammad Aurang Zeb. 2013. "Persian Gulf Desert and Semi-desert." Biomes & Ecosystems, Vol. 3, Robert Warren Howarth (ed.). Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, pp. 1000-1002.
  3. "Timeline: 120 years of major oil spills". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. May 4, 2010. Retrieved May 25, 2010. 
  4. World's Largest Oil Spills Map
  5. Dorr, Robert (1991).Desert Storm Air War. Motorbooks International, p. 75. ISBN 0-87938-560-X
  6. Bultmann, Paul R. (2001). "Environmental Warfare: 1991 Persian Gulf War". State University of New York College at Oneonta. Retrieved 2009-10-28. 
  7. G. Landrey, Wilbur (30 January 1991). "Oil slick in gulf likely to spread". pp. p. 5A.,4562220&dq=gulf+oil+spill+462+million+gallons&hl=en. Retrieved 5 May 2010. 
  8. "Environmental Warfare: 1991 Persian Gulf War". Retrieved 2011-05-14. 
  9. Hosny Khordagui; Dhari Al-Ajmi (July 1993). "Environmental impact of the Gulf War: An integrated preliminary assessment". Springer New York. pp. 557–562. Digital object identifier:10.1007/BF02394670. ISSN 0364-152X. 
  11. "Gulf Found to Recover From War's Oil Spill". 1993-03-18. Retrieved 2009-10-28. 
  12. "Lessons learned from Gulf War oil spill | PRI's The World". Retrieved 2011-05-14. 
  13. "Microsoft Word - Gulfreport.d" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-05-14. 
  14. "Confusion over scale of oil spill pollution: Infobox "Damage warnings can be overdone"9a.html". 

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