An air pollution expert at Washington University in St. Louis says the air pollution created by the Iraqi war is regional and should remain that way

An air pollution expert at Washington University in St. Louis says the air pollution created by the Iraqi war is regional and should remain that way unless something catastrophic happens such as the torching of the Kuwaiti oil wells in the 1991 Gulf War.

Rudolf B. Husar, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, is a member of the Washington University Environmental Engineering Science Program and is an expert in tracking aerosols worldwide. Husar directs the University’s Center for Air Pollution Impact, Trends and Analysis (CAPITA), the world’s largest private computerized library of air pollution data. Husar has done major studies on haze, aerosols and acid rain. He and his colleagues monitor daily the dust, smoke and haze situation over battlefields and elsewhere using publicly accessible satellite and meteorological data.

This NASA image shows the smoke from Iraq’s oil fires set early in the confrontation. An air pollution specialist at Washington University in St. Louis says, barring unforseen catastrophes, the air pollution created by the war should be regional.

“At the beginning of this war there were only ten oil wells on fire, compared with scores of them in 1991,” Husar said. “These were small fires compared with the 1991 ones. For several days, the black smoke plumes were discernible for about 100 miles, but the impact is strictly regional, affecting mostly southern Iraq, Kuwait and Iran.”

Hussar said the recent sand storms completely obscured the ground from satellite imaging, making pilots’ jobs extremely difficult.

Regarding the unthinkable, if the Iraqis use poison gas against coalition troops, the gases will dissipate before traveling too far.

“These gases affect the people in the battlefield zone,” Husar said. “As the wind disperses the toxic gases, the concentration declines rapidly. At a distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles), the gas would be one one-thousandth of the battlefield concentration, well below the lethal level. Ultimately, the gases are removed from the atmosphere by ‘cloud scavenging’ and rainout.”

Husar and his CAPITA colleagues download digital satellite image data when they notice an aerosol event of interest. They then consult international peers to discuss the scientific impact and implications.

Three recent analyses by Husar and his international collaborators include the transport of a dust cloud from a storm in China’s Gobi Desert to North America, transport of smoke from Central America to the United States and Canada, and the transport of forest fire smoke from Canada to the United States.

“We have no contact with the military,” he said. “We are observing and analyzing the pattern strictly out of scientific curiosity.”