The Ecological Effects Of Oil Pollution


02 Nov 2017

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Elexis Rupp

Tye Nichols

The ecological effects of oil pollution in Kuwait, following the Gulf War


A desert is defined as an ecosystem that gets a limited amount of rain and, therefore, can support only a limited number of organisms (Cain et al. 2011). These organisms are vital, however, to the maintenance of a stable ecosystem; that is, a pre-human climate with natural rainfall, temperature, and biodiversity levels. So, when the environment is polluted through various anthropogenic means an ecosystem can be knocked out of balance for many years—and in some cases irreversibly. This is especially the case with oil spills in desert climates, as the oil tends to remain above land without many means for removal unless well-researched (and sometimes quite expensive) measures are taken for the clean-up.

Kuwaiti deserts were highly polluted by oil in the early 1990s at the end of the Gulf War. As Iraqi troops were moving out after their occupation, they spilled millions of barrels of oil as mines were detonated in order to prevent enemy troops from taking action. This was also done deliberately for the purpose of directly damaging the oil resources of Kuwait (P. Literathy, Brown). This oil polluted not only the marine environment as oil poured in to the water, but also the air in the Gulf region through oil fires and the desert landscapes of Kuwait, leaving a thick sludge over the sandy-soil. As oil migrated from the tops of sand dunes to the depressions, it also formed hundreds of oil lakes (xx) (Omar). It is estimated that as a result of the oil spills, at least 25% of the desert was polluted (Pilcher & Sexton 1993). This political decision, unfortunately, has had a terrible impact on the already quite limited, yet scientifically and ecologically important diversity of the Kuwaiti desert.

Kuwaiti plants and animals are scientifically vital because of their ability to withstand the dry and intense conditions present in the desert landscape. This makes them prime candidates for the study of organisms able to live in such hot conditions so that a better understanding of the genes found in drought tolerant plants can be ascertained. However, these species also tend to be fragile and highly susceptible to human interactions, meaning pollution of this scale is intolerable (Omar).

Indicator species

Important to understanding the impact that unseen oil may be having on the desert ecosystem and its diversity is the study of indicator species. Lizards are good candidates for this for multiple reasons. For one, they are somewhere in the middle of trophic interactions, being eaten by xx and snakes, but also eating higher trophic level organisms such as ants. This means that if they are being affected, multiple levels of the tropic system will duly be affected by their absence. In some cases, prey such as ants have shown to increase in density in areas where lizards are not present due to pollutants. On a wide scale level, as is perfectly feasible in the 25% polluted Kuwaiti landscape, this could lead to a decrease in specific shrubs and grasses that the ants are feeding on. This, of course, would change the pattern of dominant plant species. Snakes and xx, however, would have more limited feeding sources which could lead to their extinction and a lower overall diversity in the area.

Another useful characteristic of lizards as indicator species is the fact that their skin tends to more readily absorb pollutants which means smaller traces can be detected (xx). Lizards and their prey, ants, were used as indicators of the remaining oil pollution in the area (al-hashem).

"Even 12 years after the oil spill, sand lizards ( Acanthodactylus scutellatus ) and their prey (ants) in oil-polluted sites contained 26.5–301 and 6.2–82.1 ng g −1 of total PAHs, respectively [63] . These results point to persistence of significant threats to wildlife in oil-polluted areas." (omar)

"In a study on the effects of oil pollution on the behavior of the sand lizard ( Acanthodactylus scutellatus ), Al-Hashem et al. [64] reported significant behavioral changes in terms of early daily emergence, faster eating habits and shorter basking time in oil polluted areas (tarmat and sooty sites) than in clean sites." (omar)

The effects of oil pollution on desert flora

In the parts of Kuwait that were contaminated by oil, vegetative progress has shown to be quite dramatically impacted. Up to 90% of desert plants rely on their seeds being planted in the upper few centimeters of the soil (Kemp (1989). So, when oil was spilled and left a thick coating over the sand, this prevented the plants from effectively spreading their seeds. While some plants are able to survive without the frequent seed spread and are, therefore, less impacted by their inability to, this is a particularly important trait in annuals which must frequently reproduce in order to survive (brown). As a result, annual presence has been dramatically decreased in the contaminated areas (xx). The reduction of annuals in Kuwait has been especially devastating, as annuals once comprised 256 out of the 374 plant species found in Kuwait (Omar). This has led to the polluted locations having very different plant compositions than the unpolluted areas as well as the endangerment of multiple species (Omar).

The oil in some instances has also prevented plants from being able to reach clean water reserves. This is due to the fact that along with the simple spilling of oil, there was an emission of up to 3 million barrels of burnt oil per day released through the oil fires. When oil is incompletely burned, it can settle down to the ground in the form of soot and create chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also called PAHs (al-hashem). Upon combining with small metals that are naturally present in the environment, PAHs have the potential to migrate through the soil. This migration has led to the contamination of water which plants living in or around the desert depend on. Due to the limited rainfall in the area, these water resources tend to be vitally important to any organisms in the area as they may be their sole water source (Saeed) (Literathy).

The result of some plants inability to reach water reserves or go through their natural germination process has been a reduction in the heterogenosity of the desert landscape. The previously dominant Kuwaiti shrub, Haloxylon salicornicum, for instance, has faced…

After 12 years, the oil spills dried up in some areas and produced "tar mats." These "tar mats" were able to contain any underlying moisture in the soil,which proved beneficial for vegatation that was able to implant seeds below the tar, as it made the soil more hospitable than the dry, surrounding desert soil (Al-Hashem)

The effects of oil pollution on desert fauna

While plants are definitely the dominant inhabitants of the Kuwaiti desert landscapes, some birds, reptiles, insects, small rodents, and even foxes can also be found (Al-Hassan 1992). The "tar mats" that were produced as a result of oil sitting for long periods of time have proved to be quite beneficial for plants, which has led to some animals also benefitting from this change. Due to the higher than usual densities of shrubbery in the area, insects, for instance, have had more cover than they would usually be provided in the hot desert conditions (Al-Hashem).

When the Gulf oil spill initially occurred and up through the 1990s before the tar had formed these organisms were also threatened by the pollution that resulted.

Since oil coats the landscape when it is spilled (al-hashem), the sand that the rodents burrowed in to proved to be impenetrable in parts.

Birds and insects are put at risk while migrating through the deserts, as the oil spilled from the hills of sand towards the lower parts of the desert and accumulated to form giant oil lakes. This led to the formation of over 300 oil lakes after the Gulf war, which largely remain due to the difficulty involved in cleaning them (xx cite). These lakes act as traps, rendering the wings of birds and insects useless and limiting or altogether removing their ability to fly (Brown). This prevents the birds from getting water or food during their natural migratory cycles and they either starve or die from heat exhaustion if they are able to escape the lakes. If not, they simply drown in the thick sludge.

"Alsdirawi [62] reported that the oil sludge killed the upper life forms by its toxicity and killed

the deep life forms by suffocation. Because oil lakes were mistaken for water bodies, migratory birds and insects ended up tragically as corpses scattered in and around the oil lakes." (Omar)


Due to the many problems associated with the oil spills, it is necessary to properly clean up any contaminated areas so that animal and plant life can return to normal. Despite the fact that tar formations have in some cases provided more beneficial conditions for shrubs and in-turn some vertebrates, it is important to remember that these areas are still polluted and remediation efforts ought to be made to unpolluted them. Because of the extreme conditions present in a desert climate as well as the political climate, however, it is difficult to find a remediation method that is both effective as well as economically feasible.

Microorganisms that consume oil have been looked at as a viable option for the cleanup of desert oil spills such as the Gulf spills in Kuwait. This is known as rhizoremediation (xx). When looking for appropriate microorganisms to consume the oil, it is optimal to find some that will not upset the natural balance of the environment any more than the spill already has. This means that it’s optimal to use microorganisms that are naturally present in Kuwait. A prime candidate for this would be the oil-consuming microorganisms that are present in the roots of some plants growing the polluted conditions (Radwan et al.1995). These microorganisms, however, may only slowly return the environment to normal, as the conditions in Kuwait can become too harsh for the native species to survive above land. (brown)

In order to combat this, "thermophilic oil degraders" (Sorkhoh) are necessary, as they can survive as well as reproduce in the extreme heat. The problem, then, is finding a "thermophilic oil degrader" that will not upset the natural balance of the ecosystem.

* Besides, significant amounts of toxic metals and carcinogenic substances were released for several months [22] . The smoke from the oil fires not only carried toxic substances that

were inhaled by animals and humans, but also darkened the atmosphere reducing

the sunlight and ultraviolet rays reaching the soil surface. This affected the growth

and reproduction in native flora and fauna [1] . More than 7.5-billion liters of seawater

that was stored in 163 wellhead pits and used during the fire-fighting activities

further compounded the damage to the terrestrial environment [23]


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