Colossal plumes: Iraq's oil fires seen from outer space

Colossal plumes: Iraq's oil fires seen from outer space
3 min read
02 Sep, 2016
Video: smoke from Iraqi oil wells set on fire by Islamic State jihadists is of such magnitude that they can be seen from outer space, according to NASA's Earth Observatory.
Watch now: satellite photo acquired on August 17 [Landsat 8/USGS]
The smoke from Iraqi oil wells set on fire by Islamic State jihadists is of such magnitude that they can be seen from outer space, according to NASA Earth Observatory.

On August 17, 2016, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on US satellite Landsat 8 acquired an image of dense smoke plumes roughly 50 kilometers south of Mosul. 

The US space agency says the fires were started much earlier, however.

"There appear to be multiple sources of fire, most likely oil wells from the Qayyarah oil field. The images...show the plumes changing direction and thickness since they were first spotted by Landsat 8 on June 14," said NASA.

The smoke "event" recalls fires in neighbouring Kuwait during the 1990s Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi troops ignited more than 700 oil wells during that conflict.

Like the current fires in Iraq, many of Kuwait’s fires produced thick, dark smoke.

Retreating Islamic State fighters pushed back by Iraqi forces had set fire to scores of oil wells in the Iraqi town of Qayyarah, south of Mosul.
Retreating Islamic State fighters pushed back by Iraqi forces had set fire to scores of oil wells in the Iraqi town of Qayyarah, south of Mosul.

The northern town was recaptured by Iraqi forces last week, but after IS militants lit up the oil wells, Qayyarah was blanketed by smoke for days.

Authorities were desperately trying to put out the infernos left by militants.

Observers believe this is a sign of weakening morale in the IS ranks and damaged supply lines.

The militants set fire to the oil wells initially to try to thwart airstrikes, but then as they realised they were losing ground began to set as many well alight as possible in an act of scorched earth.

Iraq's ministry of oil said it extinguished fires at four burning oil wells and was working on putting out the rest of the fires. The ministry did not say how many oil wells remain on fire.

Earlier this month, local officials had warned that IS might burn oil wells to slow Iraqi army advances on its stronghold of Mosul.

Earlier this month, local officials had warned that IS might burn oil wells to slow Iraqi army advances on its stronghold of Mosul.

"[IS] has laid an oil pipe that flows into the Tigris near the Qayyarah refinery, south of Mosul, in an attempt to pump oil into the river to burn the floating bridge constructed by the Iraqi army in mid-July," said a statement by the Nineveh Governorate Council.

"The group is attempting to pump large quantities of oil into the river and set it on fire," the group claimed.