Damage Assessment of the Desert and Coastal Environment of Kuwait by Remote Sensing

Principal Investigator: Farouk El-Baz, Co-I’s: Dr. Eric Lambin, Dr. Magaly Koch, Dr. Timothy Kusky

Research Assistants: Lynne Fielding

Graduate Students: Abdel Gadir Abu Elgasim, Ahmad Al-Doasari, Partick Marr, Mary Pax, Soren Ryherd

Sponsors: Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) through the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR)

Duration: 1992-1994

Project Summary:

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the preparations for the war that ensued have drastically impacted the desert environment in the region. This paper is based on research conducted on the environmental impacts under the sponsorship of the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences.

Images from the American Landsat and the French SPOT spacecraft were analyzed. Pre- and post-war Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) multi-spectral images with 30 meter resolution were digitally compared to produce environmental change maps. Panchromatic SPOT images with 10 meter resolution were enhanced to identify causes of the changes. Image classification techniques were used to distinguish classes of change, and geographic information system (GIS) methods allowed the production of thematic change maps. Field investigations shed further light on the nature of changes to the desert features of Kuwait.

Destruction of the layer of pebbles that protects desert soils from wind erosion caused major changes. This resulted from the movement of heavy military vehicles, planting of land mines, digging of trenches, and building of berms to hide military personnel and hardware. The exposure of fine-grained soil to the action of the prevailing wind, from the north-northwest, mobilized vast amounts of dust and sand. The finest grains were carried by the wind as dust, and the sand-sized particles accumulated into mobile dunes. In one area along the northern shore of Kuwait Bay, 22 dunes formed in eight months. In other localities to the west, numerous sand sheets and new sand dunes were formed by wind action. These dunes have covered installations in the desert and encroached on roads and agricultural farms downwind.

Another major change was the formation of over 200 oil lakes, and the deposition on the desert surface of oil droplets and soot from the fire plumes of some 700 exploded oil wells. As the oil droplets mixed with surface sand and gravel, they hardened into a layer of “tarcrete,” up to 12 centimeters in thickness. The latter formed broad zones, up to 15 kilometers wide, south of the oil fields. It is possible that poisonous elements from the oil, such as nickel and vanadium, may seep downward with rainwater to pollute ground-water resources in the substrate.

Interpretation of the satellite images and correlation with thematic maps made it possible to estimate the surface areas affected by the various military activities. Over 936 square kilometers of the desert surface were damaged by military vehicle traffic and earth movements. About 3,530 square kilometers of the natural desert pavement were destroyed by planting land mines and their clearance after the end of the war. In addition, over 978 square kilometers of the surface were damaged by tarcrete and oil lakes. In total, over 30% of the land area of Kuwait was environmentally degraded due to the military conflict.