The circulation of water along the western Persian Gulf is from north to south in a counterclockwise gyre. The predominant winds blow at an acute angle to the Saudi Arabian coast. In January there can be sudden wind events which blow waves to 9 feet. The offshore islands of Kuwait, with their coral formations, were only recently being made international preserves. The Saudi Arabian coast has hundreds of coral reefs along the upper to central coast, especially offshore at Jubal. Mangroves line many of the marshy tidal estuaries. The shoreline has a very shallow slope with a big intertidal zone.
There are only four feasible ways to clean up an oil spill beyond burning at the sources: (1) Mechanical cleanup (difficult in a war zone and almost impossible as the sole cleanup in a large spill where winds can take waves to 9 feet); (2) Dispersants (nontoxic ones must be used); (3) Beach cleanup (very expensive and labor intensive and dangerous in a war zone or adjacent areas); (4) Doing nothing -- that is, just letting the oil go wherever the wind carries it. This could result in large-scale death to corals, mangroves and fisheries.
How do the options stack up for Saudi Arabia's situation: a slick some 30 miles long and several miles wide? The preferred option in peaceful areas -- mechanical cleanup -- has the large drawback of being labor intensive and thus endangering lives in war zones. The size of this Iraqi spill may also preclude the option.
Beach cleanup and the "do-nothing" option would have about the same effect in terms of killing corals and mangroves -- that is, a severe kill could be expected. The corals could take 100 years or more to recover. It's possible they would never come back. The mangroves are (like the corals) at their northern limits, but we have techniques to restore them, learned from frequent Caribbean spills. Fish can recuperate; according to a United Nations study, the 545 spills in the Iran-Iraq wars actually enhanced fishing in the years after because little fishing occurred during the war. In terms of recuperation, fish and their eggs are highly mobile.
Thus dispersants are one of the few acceptable options. For one thing, they lessen the likelihood that the wind will blow the oil slick ashore. The current would carry dispersed oil into the deeper and relatively well-circulating waters and away from the fragile ecological resources along the shoreline, where the wind is now blowing it. Only two planes distributing dispersants at the leading edge, where oil was nearing corals, could make a profound difference in survival of these organisms. As for the mangroves, if oil comes in, they will die; if it is previously dispersed, they will live.
There are only three dispersants that we have found through extensive testing to be nontoxic after many hours of exposure and even at high concentrations (125 parts per million). These are U.S products. I hope that during the war preparations, plans were made for combating oil spills and that they included stockpiling dispersants that are nontoxic to Arabian corals.
The primary question regarding the dispersant solution is: Will dispersants still be effective on Kuwaiti oil this many days after the spill and at the progressively higher salinities that are to be found as the oil moves toward Qatar? Only an on-site test will tell. Aramco is reported to have large amounts of cleanup equipment and dispersants, which it would surely make available to such an effort to preserve the environment.
As a plan of last resort, there is restoration of corals. This is something that is only in its infancy and is very expensive. The restoration of mangroves costs much more than dispersing oil, but is feasible.
Contingency planning for "ecoterrorism" now appears to be a necessary new military tool.
The writer is a research professor of marine biology at Florida International University.