Mapping Up the Mess After Desert Storm

BEFORE the Gulf war, the Kuwaiti desert was a peaceful place, dotted with farms, flocks of sheep, and slowly churning oil wells.

But two armored invasions and thousands of bombings have left the landscape charred, eroded, and littered with wreckage.

``Nearly 30 percent of the desert surface was affected in one way or another,'' says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing (BUCRS). ``The desert will never be the same.''

Nevertheless, staffers from BUCRS and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) have joined in an effort to revive the desert ecosystem.

At an October meeting of the Geological Society of America in Boston, the researchers unveiled the first tools of the nascent cleanup: intricate aerial maps of the desert's surface.

Photographed by a duo of orbiting satellites - the National Aeronautical and Space Administration's Landsat with Thematic Mapper (TM), and the European Space Association's Systeme Pour l'Observation de la Terre (SPOT) - the images have provided the research team with a much detailed overview of the Gulf war's environmental impact.

The pictures are anything but pretty.

More than 80 Kuwaiti oil wells, sabotaged by retreating Iraqi troops, poured millions of gallons of thick crude into coastal waters and formed some 300 small black lakes on the desert floor.

In addition, many wells were set ablaze, coating huge patches of desert with slimy soot. When this fallout mixed with desert sand and cooled, it formed a rock-hard substance. El-Baz likens this mixture to a cross between tar and concrete, or ``tarcrete.''

Although 943 square kilometers of desert (about 1,520 square miles) were essentially paved by tarcrete, El-Baz says the noxious mixture will likely remain. ``It would cause even more problems if we tried to remove it.'' Instead, he says, the team's first priority will be to curb the destruction wrought by eroded sand.

``The war disturbed the desert's natural protective layer and exposed fine-grained material to the action of wind,'' he says. ``High-velocity winds created a field of 22 dunes up to 31 feet high that have begun to encroach upon roads and farms. It was thought that these dunes take tens of years to form, but these were formed in just one year.... Our main concern is to stop this dune formation. If we can do that, the vegetation will grow back.''

The research team will present its final report to the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, the project's sponsor, in March. El-Baz says the report will not only map the damage in great detail, it will also advise Kuwaiti authorities ``what kind of resources it will take to do what we recommend.''

But the report may also fuel the flames of a growing controversy. In a book slated for publication in early 1994, the Arms Control Research Center (ARC) in San Francisco charges the United States government with covering up the extent of the war's damage.

The book cites a 1991 Department of Energy (DOE) memo that requested all DOE officials and contractors to ``discontinue any further discussion of war-related research and issues.'' ARC also contends that US officials have repeatedly denied or played down the human health and climatic effects of the war. The joint BUCRS/KISR report may lend support to some of these claims.

But whether or not the report opens an environmental Pandora's box in Kuwait, the effort behind it has already succeeded on a different front.

The BUCRS/KISR project, led by El-Baz, has demonstrated the integral role satellites can play in environmental cleanups.

``I think a lot of people are amazed by what [El-Baz] is doing,'' says Carla Adam, spokeswoman for the Earth Observation Satellite Company (EOSAT), the firm that distributes Landsat images. ``His project is an example of the kind of habitat analysis you can do when you use [Landsat] data for many purposes.''

Launched in the mid-1980s, both SPOT and Landsat's TM take pictures of the Earth's surface by sending out bands of electromagnetic energy at different frequencies.

According to El-Baz, the satellites ``measure the type and amount of sunlight reflected'' and beam the data back to ground receiving stations ``where computer tapes are processed and images can be interpreted.''

The resulting images reveal a wide range of surface features or ``spectral reflectance properties.'' Among them are patterns of coastal currents, differences between types of vegetation, plant vigor, drainage networks, land temperatures, and rock types, as well as man-made irregularities.

El-Baz says that once the researchers finish the computer processing, ``we subtract the post-war images from ones taken before the war, and we see the difference.''

In a final step, researchers take the charts to the field (a process complicated by thousands of Iraqi land mines) to ``confirm their findings and make necessary adjustments.''

When asked if he thinks the desert can ever regain its prewar tranquillity, El-Baz expresses optimism. ``Nature has its own way of healing,'' he says.

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