Thick, dark smoke from the oil fires hangs over the town. Photo from Rudaw video.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The environmental damage from huge oil blazes in northern Iraq, that were started by retreating Islamic State (ISIS) forces in the town of Qayyara, will depend on how quickly the fires can be extinguished, a senior NASA scientist told Rudaw.
Dr. Ralph Kahn, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that the fires, which are so big they are detectable from space, have the potential to damage wildlife and vegetation.
“The smoke plumes themselves should dissipate within a few days after they are emitted, so their impact will be fairly local unless the fires continue burning for many days,” Dr. Kahn explained. “These plumes probably extend no more than a few hundred kilometers downwind, based on the time-series of images NASA has taken.”
As the smoke settles, he added, it will darken and pollute the surface below, which could affect “any wildlife or vegetation in its path, including agricultural fields.”
But he warned that “the plumes could also transit over populated areas, especially near the shores of the Tigris River, and if the smoke is mixed down near the surface there, this might cause its most significant environmental impact.”
Patrick Osgood of the Iraq Oil Report also told Rudaw English that, “oil has been leaking into the Tigris and spilled around the town, so we can expect there’s some ugly effects on local land and the river.”
The 15,000 people living in Qayyara get their drinking water from the Tigris. Many have suffered breathing problems from continuous exposure to the fumes. Those whose skin has come into contact with the smoke have found it extremely difficult to wash the oil out, despite showering repeatedly.
“Local officials have told us over the course of the fires that several people in Qayyara town died and many more suffered severe respiratory problems from the smoke and fumes,” Osgood added, “Though the sky is now clearing, with most of the fires now extinguished.”
The catastrophe in Qayyara, which is situated about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, was caused by ISIS militants sabotaging the town’s oil-wells before they were forced out by the Iraqi military late last month.
After frantically fighting these fires, with firefighters coming from as far as the country’s western Anbar province, Iraq says it has managed to extinguish the majority of them.
“Thick oil-fire smoke can be a serious health hazard,” Kahn explained. “The combustion particles are typically smaller than about 0.25 microns, which is smaller than the thickness of most human hair,” he added. “Such particles are small enough to penetrate the lungs and get into the blood stream.”
Kahn said that, “The most vulnerable people are young children, the elderly and those with respiratory diseases such as asthma.”
He added that, “The duration of exposure to the near-surface smoke particles, and their concentration, will determine how much of a hazard the smoke presents.”
Blackened skies, and the fact the smoke from these fires has been seen from space, has reminded some of the time Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, set fire to Kuwait’s oil wells when it was forced to withdraw from that country back in 1991.
“The fires are tiny compared to the Kuwait oil field fires,” Osgood said. “Back then around 650 wells were torched. Here, it is about 12.”
Dr. Kahn also explained the significance of the fact that the smoke caused by these fires has been seen from space.
“The size required for a plume or other near-surface feature to be seen from space depends in part on the pixel size of the instrument making the observation. If the atmosphere above it is relatively clear, a feature needs to be at least two or three pixels in size to be detected,” he said.
“To actually identify the feature from the imagery itself, the object usually needs to be at least five or six pixels in size, unless its shape contains additional clues. For example, a road might be less than three pixels wide, yet the long, skinny feature might be as easy to identify as it is to detect.”
“The contrast between the feature and the background is also important,” he added. “For example, a black oil-fire smoke plume is easier to detect and to identify against a bright desert-sand background than a desert-dust plume above a surface of similar material.”