UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes Monthly > April 2001 Search

April 2001

NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series. In this year's installments, Diane commemorates the 40th anniversary of UCAR and NCAR by focusing on key periods in our history.

Flights over the Fires of Kuwait

Ten years ago, in May 1991, a team of NCAR scientists participated in an effort, jointly supported by NSF and the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), with additional funds from the National Geographic Society, to study the effects of burning oil wells set alight by Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. NCAR staffers Lawrence Radke (then manager of RAF and co-principal investigator with Peter Hobbs of the University of Washington), Darrel Baumgardner (then ATD manager of the project, recently retired from UCAR, and now at the National Autonomous University of Mexico), Gregory Kok (then of ATD, now of RAP), Bruce Morley (then of SRI International, now of RAF), Ronald Schwiesow (then of ATD, now of Ball Brothers) participated. UCAR Archive staff Diane Rabson and Nicole Alida recently sat down with Larry, Darrel, and Bruce to look back at that time and the lessons learned.

Black and white plumes from the Kuwait oil fires. (Photo by Robert Bumpas.)


Archives: Could you tell us how this project was initiated?

Radke: In the late 1960s, I started doing research on large "smokes" in the atmosphere. These studies continued for many years while I was a professor at the University of Washington. We got involved, in the very early days, in experimental studies trying to prove or disprove the assumptions included in the "nuclear winter" hypothesis. Not long after I came to NCAR in December 1989, Rit Carbone [MMM] and I were in an early TOGA COARE planning meeting in Hawaii. Rit came over to me and said that he had a call from the upper echelons of NSF, asking if he and I could organize a research project to study the fires burning in Kuwait. At that point it was not certain how long those fires were going to last, but it was suggested that we get right on it. We came back from the TOGA COARE program [and], since the University of Washington aircraft was already instrumented for fire and smoke research ..., they joined us. Peter Hobbs and I were the co-principal investigators and our funding was from NSF and DNA. We got a little bit of money from the National Geographic Society; it covered a few of our more peculiar expenses. ... The Electra was undergoing major maintenance and we quickly assembled a team with a relevant payload for it. ... [I'm] not even sure we ever tested it all in one place before we headed to the Middle East [in May 1991]—with the paint still drying on the Electra!

One of the things we wanted to do was map the horizontal and vertical extents of the plume—since this was an extremely important part of the threat of a mini-nuclear winter—associated with the fires in Kuwait. You may recall that Carl Sagan and others said early in the confrontation with Iraq that, should the oil wells be lit in the gulf as a result of the Gulf War, a modest—but important—climatic disaster might result. This was the primary impetus for the National Research Council and NSF to get involved in the program. Of course, Saddam Hussein took Sagan's hypothesis at face value, and torched the wells—an unprecedented act of environmental terrorism! I was aware of Stephen Schneider and Starley Thompson's climate modeling for a nuclear winter at NCAR and their general agreement with Dr. Sagan's assessment of this eco-terrorism threat.

On the participants

Archives: Who were some of the other investigators involved with the project?

Baumgardner: Tony Clarke, from the University of Hawaii, came with his own aerosol instrumentation package. We had our own gas measurement, being made by Greg Kok, who was at that time measuring ozone, carbon monoxide, and peroxides. Alan Bandy [Drexel University] was looking at sulfur gases. We deployed two lidars: the NCAR CO2 lidar with 10.6 mm wavelength, and the SRI lidar with shorter wavelengths of 0.596 and 1.06 mm. We needed several wavelengths, expecially the long wavelength of the CO2 lidar, to see through some of the smoke. The smoke was so heavy at times, of course, that neither lidar could penetrate.

Archives: Were there environmental agencies involved from Kuwait?

Baumgardner: Larry was the project scientist, Bruce ran the SRI lidar that was on board, and I was the project manager. At the RAF, we have project managers that interface with scientists and their instruments, setting up the data system, getting instruments installed, and coordinating the logistics of getting the plane there and back. I spent a good portion of my time pursuing local environmental agencies for contacts, because, for getting permission to fly over Saudi Arabia—which is what we did part of the time—we had to have a Saudi contact. We had a delightful Saudi scientist, Dr. Ibrahim Alam, who flew with us part of the time and was our Saudi contact. The headquarters for our ground station was at the Bahrain Meteorological Service. We did take some of their students on maybe one or two of our flights, but it was very difficult finding space because we had a lot of equipment aboard. We were also carrying members of the Defense Nuclear Agency on board; they were funding part of the project.

Normally during a field project I fly every flight but I think I flew only two flights during the whole time because of the time I spent trying to take care of logistical problems. For example, the Defense Nuclear Agency wanted to seed the smoke plume with the inert chemical SF-6. They thought we could use SF-6 to trace air masses in the plume and follow them downwind. We tried to ship the SF-6 into the country, but logistically it was a very difficult time, even though Bahrain is one of the most liberal countries in that area. The only thing that really helped was the fact that there was a military presence still there from the U.S. and Britain. Using that connection helped in some of the logistical matters.

Maintaining the Electra in the Kuwait smoke. (Photo by Robert Bumpas.)

On working in the smoky desert

Baumgardner: This was a fairly harsh operating environment because it was very hot, dusty, and we had no hangar.

Radke: Smoky.

Baumgardner: Very smoky. Although Bahrain is a fair bit downwind there was the constant odor of the smoke.

Radke: It smelled like a badly tuned oil furnace everywhere you went. Somewhere I've got some pictures in which you can see sunspots, taken with a normal telephoto lens through the smoke. There were a couple of large sunspots: one that you could see with the naked eye for awhile or with a small telephoto lens on the camera.

Archives: What...did you notice in the earliest flights?

Baumgardner: ... I was not on the flight where the ambient light was almost completely extinguished, but I remember people's reactions, at least what was relayed to me.

Radke: Actually, that's illustrated in the National Geographic. It was the first pass that we made; we were at about 1,000 feet. There was a radio tower that was about 600 feet in the area, so we were as low as we were willing to go. We thought we were probably a little lower than we were entirely comfortable with.

Suddenly the lights went out as we got thick into the plume. Something like less than 1% of the visible radiation from the sun was reaching us. It was black inside the airplane. Quickly we turned on the cockpit illumination.

Morley: Sitting in the back of the airplane, I couldn't see anything. It just got black in the airplane and it happened very quickly.

Archives: How did you navigate through the darkest parts where you really had no visual reference? Were you using GPS in those days, or an INS [Inertial Navigation System]?

Radke: The aircraft has a full inertial instrument suite. We were never lost. We were also very aware of the various international boundaries within which we agreed to stay for any particular flight.

Archives: We've seen some very dramatic photos of soot and stuff all over the outside of the aircraft.

Radke: We got into oily rain a couple of times. One of the more amusing pictures was taken, from the University of Washington aircraft, of the equivalent of a water droplet cloud bow forming on droplets of oil. This was quite a ways down the shore side of the Gulf. The airplane came back blacker every day.

Archives: When you went out daily, how long would you usually stay up?

Radke: Six, seven hours.

Baumgardner: We had sixteen flights, I think. Sixteen to seventeen flights from May 16, 1991, through June—about a month.

Radke: We didn't take very many days off.

Morley: I didn't have one off. I remember one time we were going to have two nonflight days in a row. I thought I would go out and do something on the airplane, do a little maintenance on my equipment and take the next day off. But it didn't happen. We had one day off that we didn't fly. We flew the second day. But I was the only one with my instrument and I had to fly with it. I flew with it every flight. And then I had to clean up and maintain it and, if something broke or something else happened, then I had to worry about keeping track of the data and everything else.

Oil smears on the Electra after flying through the smoke plumes. (Photo by Robert Bumpas.)

On the problems with models then in use

Baumgardner: Flight planning during the project was primarily from looking at the satellite data. One of the biggest problems during the project was the lack of good model forecasts of the plume. There were several agencies that were running models and trying to tell us where the plume was going. We went out there thinking that we were going to be using these as forecast products to point the aircraft in the right direction, and from my memory, the models did a very poor job of tracking the plume. They were using models that were designed for major disasters, like a big oil spill.

Radke: Or a radioactive release like Three-Mile Island.

Baumgardner: The satellite imagery was pretty good. We did have a group there from the University of Wisconsin, who got a station set up so that we had real-time satellite information, and that was very helpful.

Radke: That was a startling aspect of these studies. We were using DOE and NOAA's best disaster plume models to forecast the movement of the plume—and these were the same models that were available to predict Chernobyl-like events—and they didn't work. It wasn't that they were just a little wrong: they were very wrong. ... Yet here in the Indian Ocean, in the INDOEX experiment, barely a decade later, we were able to predict all sorts of details about the plume coming out of India and Asia with uncanny precision.

On relations with the military

Archives: What encounters with the military did you have during the flights?

Morley: The first time we went into Kuwait airspace, we were told we didn't have permission and were asked to leave, so that was a very short flight.

Radke: One afternoon while we were out over the Gulf of Arabia or the Persian Gulf, an Iranian military vessel suggested to us that if we didn't turn around immediately, they would fire upon us.

Baumgardner: There was also a flight where the Electra popped out of a cloud and there was a United States carrier, with full Air Force support, telling us: "You are not supposed to be here and, by the way, we're not supposed to be here, either."

Morley: An F-14 or F-16 flew above us and one flew below us. They asked, "How long do you plan to be here?" I answered: "Just as long as you'll let us!" We were looking for remnants of the plume in the Red Sea. Over the Arabian peninsula, we came down from the clouds and all of a sudden we were in the middle of the U.S. carrier task force.

Radke: People's nerves were still rubbed raw from the Gulf War. I remember when we first taxied in at the Bahrainian National Airport, there was a German anti-aircraft team and a sandbagged bunker with a twin or four-barrel cannon. All of those barrels followed us as we taxied to a stop. We wondered what the fellow who had his finger on the trigger was thinking.

Baumgardner: Any aircraft fully equipped for cloud research has instruments hanging off the wings that would look like armory of some sort. So that was always a worry, that somebody would not understand that our instrumentation was for measuring particles, not for shooting lasers.

Morley: Also, we didn't have big signs on the side of the plane that said "National Science Foundation." The markings were fairly small, so it wasn't clear what the airplane was for.

Archives: Did the American government do anything in advance to be sure you were safe once you got over there?

Radke: We had an AWACS aircraft that followed us around part of the time. I suspect we had some other aircraft following us around part of the time as well. I was not intimately aware that they were; we had a [cloud] cover part of the time.

Baumgardner: Prior to going there, of course, we worked through diplomatic channels to get clearances to get in there. Once there, the American embassy in Bahrain was not very helpful, probably because of still being in a semi-state of war with higher priorities than science.

The scientific findings

Radke: The climatic worries about the fires in Kuwait were all plausible, based on what we knew at the time. Several of the key assumptions associated with that were proven to be incorrect by our expedition, and I've long characterized our expedition as a triumph of the experimental method. We went and directly tested several aspects of the nuclear winter hypotheses and found them to be not very robust!

Hydrogen sulfide

Radke: One of the reasons we considered Al Bandy fairly important was [because] the high-pressure oil and gas fields in Kuwait have a lot of hydrogen sulfide in them. H2S is a fairly deadly gas, and there was a suggestion that there might be ... significant toxicity in the smoke plume.

Baumgardner: Of course, we had gas masks aboard and we wore them during the flight a lot of the time. Towards the end of the project, the masks were too uncomfortable to wear for lengthy periods. Before we first used the masks, those with beards and mustaches had to cut them off. We saw people's faces for the first time in their whole careers.

Morley: Many people didn't recognize me when I came back!

Archives: Were most of those toxic gases and fumes found airborne in the plume? Did you find any on the ground?

Radke: What people hadn't put together, prior to our measurements, was that H2S was highly flammable as well. In a jet that has fire on top of it, [the H2S] burns [as readily as] hydrocarbons. There was no detectable H2S in the plumes. That was a red herring as a threat.

The smoke plumes

Archives: Could you describe the smoke plume itself? I understand it was in several layers. It was probably not as thick and dangerous as people were afraid it might be. But I also wonder if it was confined to the troposphere.

Radke: Yes. There were two things we learned about the plumes from the 700-odd fires. Some of them weren't black; they were practically white. The total plume itself, when we started collecting samples of it, was dark gray. We expected a very sooty, very black, potentially climatically damaging smoke, and what we got was gray smoke. We couldn't have been more surprised.

I think I probably gaped on the first mission when I was looking at these white plumes coming out of pools of burning oil. The suggestion that these plumes might steadily rise from their initial stabilization layer higher and higher in the atmosphere was based on some work that I had done. These black smokes would be heated by the sun; the term that was coined to describe this was "self-lofting." It was suggested that these plumes would absorb enough sunlight that they would rise high enough in the atmosphere to become out of reach of the atmosphere's normal cleansing mechanisms, and thus be long-lived.

The smokes were supposed to be resistant to removal by clouds—called "cloud scavenging." However, we found them to be amongst the most readily removed of the atmospheric aerosols. So rather than resistant and hydrophobic, we found them to be hydrophilic—water lovers. Another surprise. But I digress from the self-lofting and what happened to the plume next.

The desert area there has a very strong mid-level inversion, and there was some slight rise with time of the plume. The plume spread horizontally enough so that before it ever got going from the self-lofting solar mechanism, it spread out enough that the heating was comparatively insignificant compared to what else was going on in the desert. I think the highest remnants we ever found were just shy of 20,000 feet. Most of it was sort of half that altitude.

Morley: Everybody expected the plumes not to be very good at cloudmaking, since the oil typically by itself is just very hydrophobic, where it can't take a lot of water. But we took a lot of filter samples that were subsequently analyzed by a group [back] here at NOAA that found that these particles had a lot of sulfate on them, mixed in. It doesn't take very much sulfur to, all of a sudden, make these particles capable of taking up water very quickly. This is a very important point that has now been seen in other types of cases as well. Soot particles don't stay pure soot for very long.

Radke: ... Darrel led an expedition all the way down to the Indian Ocean, down the Red Sea from across the peninsula, ... to see if we could trace the plume that far. The Indian government wouldn't let us down, though, in another piece of diplomatic foolishness. As far as Darrel was able to trace the plume without being shot down, the plume rose no higher and it was awfully tenuous by then.

Morley: It was hard to find when we were over the Red Sea. There was really nothing to measure ... the chemical or lidar traces were all very small.

Baumgardner: But it was the very presence of the Gulf next to the land that was generating so much of the dynamics, spreading the plume so quickly. There was a low-level jet moving very fast. Every time we came in to land or take off, there was an incredible wind shear, about 1,000 feet above the airport, if that. So the most important dynamics were probably generated by the land-sea interface.

Archives: So those were the typical wind events of the area, regardless of the fires.

Baumgardner: That's right.

Archives: It wasn't any kind of heat differential created by the fires.

Baumgardner: Possibly, as we certainly saw temperature rises that could be attributed to the solar absorption.

Nuclear winter

Archives: What about the nuclear winter theory?

Radke: I think much of the impetus in that discussion was taken off the table with several of the factors that came out of the Kuwait expeditions. While each of the principal elements involved in nuclear winter are plausible, reasonable—some of them even appear robust—most of them are unproven, especially in a quantitative sense. It can't be considered disproven, but I hope we never get around to a major simulation effort. I do consider one of the major accomplishments of our efforts to have been an experimental triumph. We went prepared to look at what we considered to be critical scientific issues as to whether this environmental insult would result in an important climatic impact, and in less than a month, we came back with the ability to address these questions with a high degree of confidence. Not certainty—certainty is one of those things that's in real short supply in the science business, but I think amongst the group that briefed NSF and the [National] Academy [of Sciences] and some of the UN people, there weren't any of us who were really nervous about being wrong (although it was in the back of all our minds).

The data

Radke: When we finished this experiment and presented our preliminary report—whose highlight was that an environmental catastrophe was extremely unlikely to ensue—we had an enormous body of research data of a unique nature, and no federal agency was interested in paying for it to be analyzed. But rather than this data disappearing, Darrel organized a data repository [on the NCAR Mass Storage System]: the Kuwait Data Archive. We archived not only our data, but also the data of many of the other research groups that were over there. So this archive—even though it is no longer actively supported—is still being mined from time to time.

Baumgardner: Julie Haggerty [ATD] was hired to generate this archive. It was a multi-agency funded effort that turned out quite well. We got money from NOAA, DOE, EPA, and NSF to do this data archive. It was active—very active—for about three years afterwards. In fact, even now, every time Saddam rattles his saber, people start getting nervous and we start getting phone calls about the data archive.

There were actually five aircraft over there. The very first was the British aircraft, the British C-130; they went in March and took some of the very preliminary measurements. We followed along with our Electra and the 131 from Washington. And then a small aircraft—a Navajo—showed up from Germany. Another aircraft did some measurements as part of the German effort. After we departed, the DOE sent their G-1—Gulfstream- 1—aircraft to the area and followed up with some measurements in July. They ended up measuring mostly the dust storms.

That was interesting, however, since we got a lot of mixed oil and dust at that time as a result of large windstorms. I gather that the dust produced by these wind storms was a lot worse during this time of year because the military action of the armored vehicles had really torn up the soil. There was a lot of loose soil that was then able to be picked up by the wind, so the effect of the wind turned out to be a lot worse than it would have been otherwise. That was one of the reasons that sometimes the plumes were a lot brighter, radiatively speaking, than we expected them to be. With mixtures of both oil and dust the optical properties changed dramatically.

There's a real wealth of data, but we've only scratched the surface. It's a shame that when we go out on these major field expeditions, we really only use a small amount of the data. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that the agencies are willing to fund the fieldwork, but then to try to get money for the follow-up analysis is more difficult. Had the fires continued burning, I suspect there would have been a lot more interest in maintaining the analysis of the data, but I think that with the rapid extinguishing of the fires, the interest was lost to a large degree.

Fransisco Valero (left, Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and Larry Radke on a sampling flight. (Photo by Robert Bumpas.)

Health effects of the Gulf War fires

Archives: Have you heard anything about long-term health effects on people in the region because of the smoke?

Baumgardner: There were some problems near the fires on the ground. But downwind—I have never seen anything published that showed that there was any major problem from the smoke.

Radke: The UN Compensation Commission is just now getting ready to adjudicate the claims by the Gulf states against Iraq for the environmental and health impact. So we'll probably be hearing more about that, but nothing that we saw in the chemistry, other than the sheer scale of it, would suggest a big health problem at the surface. It was an enormous pollution assault, and it was a great deal different than what we experienced in large urban areas, where it doesn't rain oil.

On the aftermath

Archives: Were there any critics who were concerned about [your findings]?

Baumgardner: There were several environmental groups who felt there was a cover-up going on.

Archives: Was there actually an accusation?

Baumgardner: Yes, there were definitely some accusations that the public was not being given the whole story. I can't remember all of the other things that were going on.

Radke: There was a newsletter that suggested that the aftermath of the Gulf War was the cause of rising emphysema and asthma in the world.

Baumgardner: I read several articles that stated we were withholding some of the data, that we weren't really showing the full set of data. As far as I know, there was certainly no cover- up from our standpoint.

Radke: The archive was open.

Baumgardner: The archive was open and we handed out the data freely. We had some orientation on how to handle the press, and we basically said, "No. This is all open. We're not going to hide anything here; there's nothing to hide." And it turned out that there wasn't any problem. Nobody misused the data to my knowledge.

Radke: Remarkably, there was no scientific controversy about our results, and they were universally accepted right off the bat. I mean, they were well-documented, well-measured, measured by more than one group, the opinion of more than one scientist on each point—it was a tour de force. We really hit the issues. It was extremely satisfying.

Archives: Just one more thing: A major environmental disaster during that time was not a human-caused one. It was the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in July 1991.

Baumgardner: That's a very good point. Had it not been for Pinatubo, it's possible we could have tracked what was going on globally a little bit better with satellites. But Pinatubo was a wonderful example of how nature can make everything that man does look pretty puny. Pinatubo did change the climate.

Radke: The scale of Pinatubo, a natural event, dwarfed the fires in Kuwait.

• Diane Rabson

Acronyms used: DOE: Department of Energy

EPA: Environmental Protection Agency

INDOEX: Indian Ocean Experiment

TOGA COARE: Tropical Ocean Global Program Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment

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