WAR is always rough on the environment, but combat in the Persian Gulf region may be especially damaging to nature. Two massive armies with large modern arsenals are faced off across a small piece of disputed land and water that is among the most ecologically rich in the world. Iraq's Saddam Hussein has not hesitated to dump oil into the Gulf or burn petroleum facilities. Led by the US, coalition forces are bombing bridges over irrigation barriers crucial to agriculture in the region.
Tanks and other tracked vehicles on both sides are tearing up the fragile desert. A single warplane sortie burns as much fuel (and spews as much air pollution) as the typical American auto does in three years.
Some scientists predict unprecedented losses, not only to animal species but to humans hundreds of miles away. While ``a global eco-catastrophe is improbable,'' says British chemical engineer John Cox, if Iraq blows up the hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait the massive pall of smoke could affect seasonal monsoons in south Asia, thereby harming crops on which hundreds of millions of people depend.
``Failure of the Asian monsoons is not an academic curiosity,'' Dr. Cox warns. ``Even a partial failure could cause more deaths than the populations of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia combined.''
More immediate is the 11 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, an amount five times the largest spill during the Iran-Iraq war and 40 times as much as the Exxon Valdez dumped into Alaska's Prince William Sound.
``The damage in the Persian Gulf will likely be greater than has been seen in any oil spill in history,'' states a recent report from the environmental group Greenpeace USA. ``And because of the nature of the ecology of the Gulf, even a massive [cleanup] effort will have marginal results.''
The Gulf is particularly vulnerable to oil pollution, experts note. It is shallow and exchanges water only very slowly with the Indian Ocean through the narrow Strait of Hormuz.
At the same time, it is one of the most plankton-rich bodies of water in the world (which attract birds, fish, and other marine life) and has many important coral reefs, mangrove swamps, seagrass beds, salt marshes, and mud flats. Throughout the Gulf region, there are more than 3,650 animal species, some 50 of them internationally recognized as being threatened with extinction.
``Into the middle of all that - this sort of fertile soup of the Gulf - you've now had deposited this vast quantity of oil,'' observes Robin Pellew, director of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, England. ``So you've got there all the ingredients for a major marine disaster.''
So far, says Dr. Pellew, that disaster has yet to occur - thanks to winds and currents keeping most of the oil out in the deeper part of the Gulf. There, wave action is reforming it into ``a sort of thick chocolate mousse.'' Even so, pictures of oil-soaked cormorants indicate an oily sheen has reached shore in some sensitive areas.
Slow breakdown of oil
If the bulk of the oil remains away from shore, it will form into tar balls - hanging in the water column and eventually breaking down through microbial action. ``The whole cycle of that can certainly take several years,'' Pellew says. ``The oil releases from the Iran-Iraq War are still present on many of the coastal sites around the Gulf nearly 10 years later.''
The World Conservation Monitoring Centre in England is a joint project sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the World Conservation Union.
In January, the monitoring project issued a lengthy and detailed report on the impact of war in the Gulf on marine life. The report took a relatively cautious and conservative line compared with more inflammatory environmental analyses in circulation. Still, it concluded that ``the Gulf war will cause major environmental effects that may be felt well beyond the boundaries of the countries involved.''
This week, the monitoring organization is releasing its reports on the land and atmosphere. The main conclusion of these new studies is that ``land-based hostilities in the Gulf will have a significant environmental impact that will compromise the process of postwar reconstruction.''
As with the oil spill and air war, land war is likely to have its greatest impact on vulnerable marine life. Deserts are fragile, but in the Gulf region much of the desert already has been severely degraded by the building of oil facilities, by livestock overgrazing, and by four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying hunting parties.
Certain salt pans, marshes, and wadis in the desert considered to have economic and ecological importance are likely to be damaged; some already have been. But, says Dr. Pellew in an interview, ``there is some evidence that the passage of tanks and tracked vehicles breaking up the compacted surface might actually encourage colonization by vegetation, particularly if there are residual land mines and other ordnance left scattered around to deter grazers and hunting parties.''
``We're trying to look on the positive side,'' he says, mindful of the irony in such predictions. ``There are experiences from previous wars, particularly in the Sinai in the Six Day War, which show that if you eliminate the people - even if it means having a few land mines around - the vegetation recovers, the habitat recovers quite quickly.''
As for the atmospheric impact of hundreds of oil fires, should Iraq adopt a scorched-earth policy in Kuwait, the British scientist is skeptical about computer models that show devastating effects on monsoons a continent away. Such models are based on the burning of Saudi oil facilities as well, which is very unlikely to happen. But many simultaneous fires in Kuwait (where Iraq is believed to have set explosives around all the onshore wells) could affect tens of thousands of square kilometers in the Gulf region.
Impact of smoke cloud
``Within that area, under that smoke cloud, you're going to get soot fallout, a considerable increase in acid rain from the sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides, the possibility of chemical contamination, and greatly reduced solar radiation - temperatures will fall by 10 to 15 degrees,'' Pellew says. ``And if it takes a long time to extinguish the fires, it will impact agriculture, the productivity of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and will directly affect human health.''