The Gulf War Oil Spill: A Man-made Disaster

Starting in January of 1991, large quantities of oil began to spill into the Persian Gulf. Early reports from Iraqi forces claimed that the spill had been caused by the United States sinking of two oil tankers. It was later revealed that in a desperate military move, Iraqi forces had opened oil valves of the Sea Island pipeline, releasing oil from numerous tankers. The goal of this spill was to impede US troops from attempting beach landings, but in the end the spill simply resulted in over 240 million gallons of crude oil being dumped into the Persian Gulf. This spill is one of the first times in military history where a natural resource and specifically pollution was used as a tactic of war. Though it is hard to know the full scale of the spill for certain, many scientists believe it to be one of the worst in human history. The effect on marine life and on the shores was extensive and the region is still feeling the effects of the spill, manifested in a loss of biodiversity and uninhabitable coastlines.

Contributed by Michael Castellani
Course: Global Environmental History
Instructor: Andrew Stuhl, Ph.D.
Bucknell University Lewisburg, US

Further Readings: 
  • Hawley, T M. Against the Fires of Hell: The Environmental Disaster of the Gulf War. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1992.
  • Sadiq, Muhammad, and John C. McCain. The Gulf War Aftermath: An Environmental Tragedy. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993.