For animals, particularly birds, the oil from oil spills permeates into the structure of the plumage of birds and animals, thus reducing their insulating ability. This in turn, leads the birds more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations, and much less buoyancy in the water, and also in payers or disables the bird’s flight abilities to forage and escape from their predators. While they still preen while covered by the oil, the birds typically ingest the oil that is covering their feathers, which causes kidney damage, altered liver functionality, and irritation to the digestive tract. Most birds that are affected by oil spills will ultimately die unless humans rescue them. Studies have shown that even after rescue from oil spills and cleaning that only 1% of the oil soaked birds will survive.
Oil spills can also affect other animals such as Sea Otters, whales and other fish and sea life. These oil spills can also dramatically affect local communities and their economies that rely on fishing and/or tourism as we witnessed in the Deep Water Horizon disaster which we will go into more depth later.
The environmental impact of this disaster was more obvious than most oil spills. The smoke from the fires was visible from satellites and the space shuttle. The smoke created a huge problem with air quality in the region, and created respiratory problems for a large portion of the Kuwaiti population. The desert environment, which has a limited natural cleansing ability was also severely impacted by the sabotaged wells.There also were roughly 300 lakes that were formed by the unignited oil leaking from the wells and contaminated nearly 40 millions tons of earth and sand. These lakes contained roughly 1 to 2 million gallons of oil, or 25 to 50k barrels. The unignited oil and desert sand mixture formed what was referred to as ‘tarcrete’ which covered nearly 5% of Kuwait. The emissions of sulfur dioxide from the fires was equivalent to 57% of that created by US electric plants, and CO2 emissions amounted to 2% of the total global emissions, while soot emissions were estimated at 3400 metric tons a day. Vegetation around the lakes began to recover by 1995, but due to the dry climate, some of the lakes were partially solidified, and the oil has continued to seep deeper into the sand in the mean time, and the consequences for Kuwait’s underground water supplies remains a question mark.
Kuwait Oil Fires: Although these were not oil spills directly, they did lead to the loss of an estimated 42 to 64 million gallons of oil, making it by far the largest oil spill on record. The Kuwait oil fires were a direct result of man as the were set by the retreating Iraq military forces as part of their scorched earth policy in January and February 1991. It was not until November 6, 1991 that the last oil fire was extinguished, due to the difficulties created by the Iraqi’s who had placed land mines in the surrounding areas of the oil wells, and a military cleanup crew was required to ensure safe access for the oil well firefighters. The total cost when all was said and done to Kuwait was $1.5 billion US dollars. Most of the fires had burned for roughly a total of 10 months before being extinguished.