Jormungandr, the Snakebot of Doom, has unleashed its 6.8 metric ton railgun rounds upon the world's 700 or so petroleum refineries over the space of forty-five minutes. Its goal is to put the refineries out of action and to ignite any petroleum products stored on site by rupturing their storage, tasks that its railguns have no difficulty in performing.

Jormungandr's 6.8 metric ton disintegrating railgun rounds will achieve this goal over an interval of about fifteen minutes as the shots it targeted upon the refineries in order from the most distant to closest impact their targets. Any petroleum tanker ships on-site at coastal refineries will also be destroyed and their contents - if any - ignited.

What general environmental impacts would occur from every petroleum refinery in the world being destroyed and any petroleum on site being ignited? Please describe both the short-term impact to the immediate areas and globally over the following weeks, and the long-term impact over the same areas, over the following years.

I am not concerned with the possibility of humanity being broken of its petroleum addiction, so please address only the impact of the refinery fires over the time frames specified, and do not address the effects of the possible cessation or reduction in petroleum refining, or any economic or military implications. This is a purely environmental question.

I'm after a generalised answer as to the environmental effects, not specific details as to the effects on a per-refinery basis.

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    $\begingroup$ well the collapse of the global economy and and triggering world war 3 will be two effects that make predicting other long term effects an exercise in futility. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 27 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ @John, WWIII won't happen... There's this 1.5 billion ton robotic snake currently sitting in the gravel driveway that used to be New York, busily dismantling the world's militaries. People have more to worry about than what they're going to do without oil. The global economy is going to collapse regardless, since Jormungandr is going to flatten every permanent structure it can find. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Apr 27 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I'm hardly asking for a whole book... just a general idea of how much smoke there's likely to be, how long it will last, what it will do to global temperatures... little stuff like that. Not a whole book. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Apr 27 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH, it could... but it isn't what I'm asking for. An answer that long would need a TL;DR... $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Apr 27 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ Why not do your own research, or use your own imagination? By all means explode your refineries but why describe your ideas of the short-term impact to the immediate areas and globally over the following weeks, and the long-term impact over the same areas, over the following years? $\endgroup$ – Robbie Goodwin Apr 28 at 1:48

At the end of the war against Iraq to free Kuwait, the retiring invading troops set many Kuwait oil fields on fire. That looks like a small scale version of what you are asking.

This how the fires looked when seen from the Space Shuttle

Kuwait oil fires as seen from Space Shuttle

Immediately following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, predictions were made of an environmental disaster stemming from Iraqi threats to blow up captured Kuwaiti oil wells. Speculation ranging from a nuclear winter type scenario, to heavy acid rain and even short term immediate global warming were presented at the World Climate Conference in Geneva that November.

In retrospect, it is now known that smoke from the Kuwait oil fires only affected the weather pattern throughout the Persian Gulf and surrounding region during the periods that the fires were burning in 1991, with lower atmospheric winds blowing the smoke along the eastern half of the Arabian Peninsula, and cities such as Dhahran and Riyadh, and countries such as Bahrain experienced days with smoke filled skies and carbon soot rainout/fallout.

Thus the immediate consequence of the arson sabotage was a dramatic regional decrease in air quality, causing respiratory problems for many Kuwaitis and those in neighboring countries.

According to the 1992 study from Peter Hobbs and Lawrence Radke, daily emissions of sulfur dioxide (which can generate acid rain) from the Kuwaiti oil fires were 57% of that from electric utilities in the United States, the emissions of carbon dioxide were 2% of global emissions and emissions of soot reached 3400 metric tons per day.

In a paper in the DTIC archive, published in 2000, it states that "Calculations based on smoke from Kuwaiti oil fires in May and June 1991 indicate that combustion efficiency was about 96% in producing carbon dioxide. While, with respect to the incomplete combustion fraction, Smoke particulate matter accounted for 2% of the fuel burned, of which 0.4% was soot." (With the remaining 2% being oil that did not undergo any initial combustion).

What about the effects on the environment?

Although scenarios that predicted long-lasting environmental impacts on a global atmospheric level due to the burning oil sources did not transpire, long-lasting ground level oil spill impacts were detrimental to the environment regionally.

Vegetation in most of the contaminated areas adjoining the oil lakes began recovering by 1995, but the dry climate has also partially solidified some of the lakes. Over time the oil has continued to sink into the sand, with potential consequences for Kuwait's small groundwater resources.

  • $\begingroup$ This is what i wanted to say, and even using the same picture i wanted to use. If only i could click the upvote 17 times. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Apr 27 at 8:39

Not particularly devastating. Will average to about 1/25th of the Australian 2019-2020 bushfires.

So in terms of environmental damage from fires, I'm going to define a new unit: "A Black Summer." This is the environmental damage done from the Australian bushfire season that bridged 2019-2020, which we've titled "The black summer" locally.

"A black summer" put out 830 million tonnes of CO2, killed 445 people from smoke inhalation, hospitalised 4000 people, killed 3 billion animals, resulted in AUD 2.2 billion in insurance claims, hit productivity to the cost of about $20 billion.

There's also "1 Australian Black Summer" which is 1 black summer divided over the land area of Australia.

Lets first convert your disaster to Black Summers.

How much oil is out of the ground and in ships / tankers / refineries / storage tanks? The sum total of global strategic oil reserve, which is the best figure I could find for all the oil between extraction and consumption, is 4.1 billion barrels (650,000,000 cubic meters). If production stopped tomorrow, we have 41 days of oil on hand, 1.4 billion of which is government controlled reserves, the rest is stockpiled at refineries or on ships.

If all this is burnt, this handy EPA calculator allows me to calculate how much CO2 is emitted - it's 0.43 metric tonnes per barrel.

Multiply it out and you get 1.763 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted, which is basically 2 Black Summers. This will be stretched over the following days or even weeks as the fires slowly burn (much is underground with limited oxygen to combust through the rail gun holes), similar time frame as the reference Black Summer.

So the total environmental cost can be summarised as:

  • 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2.
  • ~1000 people dead from smoke inhalation.
  • ~8000 people hospitalised.
  • 6 billion animals die.
  • 4.4 billion AUD (~\$3 billion USD) in insurance claims.
  • $40 billion AUD (~\$30 billion USD) in smoke-based damaged to economic output.

That's.... not as bad as one might think, right?

This makes sense... All that oil was going to be burnt by cars and trucks and planes over the following few months anyway. It's been a little more compressed in time, and burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment anyway, but it wont be devastating on its own. No nuclear winter or anything.

You've got double the disaster of the Australian bushfire season diluted over the entire earths surface. Australia is about 2% of the worlds land area, so twice as bad in total, spread over 50 times the area. Average it out - I calculate this as approximately 1/25th as bad as the Australian Bushfires per unit of land.

Using SI prefix notation of milli being 1/1000th, your disaster from igniting all the worlds oil refineries and storage is 40 milli-Australian-Black-Summers.

Honestly that's the end of the interesting analyses. But you did ask about local affects too.

I don't think the local affects are really that notable environmentally, at least compared to the oil spills we're used to seeing in the media. Remember the oil wont spread as far because it'll be consumed in a fireball. The larger the oil spreads, the more surface area to interact with oxygen and the faster it burns.

Some petroleum by-products don't burn easily. I'd normally worry about them getting into the water table, but with millions of litres of liquids burning in a close area vaporising everything within 10s of meters, including normally non-flammable products, it's almost all going to be burnt. Many of these obscure products are "not flammable, but combustible", meaning if you try hard enough, they'll burn.

Surrounding the refineries will be a black scorch mark maybe 100m in the direction of the prevailing winds directly caused by the fire, but the secondary fires ignited by this firestorm will disguise any notable direct environmental damage outside the refinery perimeter. Expect a nearby bushfire and surrounding buildings to be torched.

Almost everything spilt will get burnt in that firestorm so you wont have the images of ducks covered in crude oil or the shiny black beaches 100s of km away - it'll just be a thick smoke cloud for a few days, then sooty black covering everything for a few weeks, and then washed away in the next rains leaving a scared blackened landscape, with nature starting to regrow within a year.

5 years later it'll look like a ruin with normal vegetation and wildlife around it. A trained eye may spot the fire history in the shape of the vegetation, but it'll look fine to you and I.

  • $\begingroup$ That's the global effects... now what will it be like near the burning refineries? $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Apr 27 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Within a dozen meters it'll be equiverlant to being hit by a hail of railgun rounds. Within a few hundred meters it'll be equivalent to being near a big fire. Everywhere else will be smokey, exaclty how much depending on winds. $\endgroup$ – Ash Apr 27 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ I dispute the total number of animals that will die. The animals that died in the Australia bushfires of 2019/20 lived in that habitat before it was razed. How many animals live on the grounds of oil refineries? Very few. The bushfires were wide spread & the animals had nowhere to go so they died. Oil refineries occupy small areas of land by comparison & will be populated by small numbers of limited species. Some will be able to escape. $\endgroup$ – Fred Apr 27 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ "not flammable, but combustible" immediately made me think of diamonds 😃. (Search YouTube...) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Apr 27 at 23:45

It's worse than you think.

Never mind the refineries and oil storage depots.
Never mind the resultant global shortage of petrochemical products.
Never mind the rather toxic clouds of smoke from burning chemicals.
For that matter, never mind the many thousands of workers killed instantaneously at the impact sites.

You have a LAND-BASED gargantuan, firing 6.8 tonne hypersonic projectiles to many,many thousands of sites around the world.

The sheer devastation of the sonic booms under an atmospheric, low-flying, hypersonic 6.8 tonne projectile will leave a trail of devastation hundreds of kilometers long.
Think what happened at Chelyabinsk, where one such a projectile passed overhead, at an altitude of more than 30 km. Now multiply that by many thousands of projectiles, that circle the globe. And are traveling near the surface (at least at the point of origin, and near the point of impact)

  • $\begingroup$ Uh... the railgun slugs are ballistic. They are fired from high altitude - over a mile above the ground - exit the atmosphere, and then descend nearly vertically near their target. There would not be long sonic boom footprints. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Apr 29 at 6:09
  • $\begingroup$ The railgun slugs are also very streamlined, and are not a 20m wide 12-13,000 ton meteor. You're comparing apples to oranges. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Apr 29 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild So sorry, then you should edit your question accordingly. High-arc trajectories would not reach all targets on the world within 45 minutes, as stated. To achieve that, you need near-surface (below about 200km) trajectories, at mach 25. Faster just arc higher, talking longer. Slower does not travel far enuogh. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Apr 29 at 7:17

On a local level, not all the petroleum products from the oil refineries will be burned. In some locations, some of the storage tanks will rupture, spilling their contents on the ground. Fuel lines supplying crude oil will also rupture and some of the crude oil will spill on the ground. Some of the split petroleum products and crude oil will get burned and depending on circumstances, at some locations it will seep into the ground. This will locally contaminate the soil with hydrocarbons.

Some of the contaminating hydrocarbons may also contaminate underground aquifers or surface streams, lakes, bays depending on where the oil refiners were located.

Both the contamination by hydrocarbons and the resultant heat from the burning of hydrocarbons will kill soil microbes in the upper portions of soils at the sites. This will produce a dead zone which will make it difficult for plants to reestablish themselves at such sites for a period of time.

  • $\begingroup$ It's pretty certain that the area around petroleum refineries is already pretty badly contaminated. Though groundwater contamination would definitely be worse. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Apr 27 at 19:31

Humanity would be mostly wiped out.

Most food is fertilised by petrochemical fertilisers. Most food is transported by ship. That would stop in a week. The world doesn't stockpile any more. It's all about minimum inventory. No food, no fuel, no shops. Farming relies on scale, and without energy and equipment, effects would be dire and immediate.

The small amount of natural energy generation still working would degrade in a year or so without manufactured spares or means of transporting them. Dams would fail, solar panels would degrade, and wind farms would fail due to lack of maintenance and lubrication.

Machinery requires fuel and lubricants, so factories would stop. There would be some electric transport for a while, but no road maintenance and no car repairs. Medicines would no longer be manufactured. Not would anything else. Pandemics would reign. There would be no health care.

All cities would be war zones. You would kill your friends for food or a box of matches. But your own army will almost certainly kill you first, to take your stuff. People don't cooperate these days. They compete, and the army has guns. They'll be on foot, and will spread across the landscape like the Sea People at the end of the Bronze Age, laying waste to all before them.

Indeed, you only need to take out the 3 biggest refineries or so to cause global catastrophe. I think there have been a few novels with this as the plot line, where a few people think they are doing the world a favour by blowing up something humanity depends on to the extent that it does. Then everybody dies.

If you plan on doing this, stock up on canned and dried foods, and learn how to start a fire with sticks. And move below the 30th parallel. Bears. And stay out of the water. Sharks.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know why this got downvoted... it's actually a central part of the plot... How long would you say it would be before lots of people begin to die? $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Apr 27 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ It would likely be due to violence as people anticipate their own needs, rather than through starvation or thirst. Downvotes because it doesn't fit the narrative that it's a simple question of turning off the tap. The tap is on because we demand and require it. Half of the oil that comes out of the ground is never burned as fossil fuels. It makes our clothes, feeds our crops, lubricates our machines, etc. But everyone believes they are a true social justice warrior and would bravely take the first step etc. They'd just screw it up. $\endgroup$ – wingnut Apr 28 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Just the rumor of a shortage, led to fistfights in the toilet paper aisles last year. Imagine the conflict arising from the confirmed, global, longterm shortage of all petrochemical products. There will be chaos, there will be a lot of it, and it will happen immediately. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Apr 28 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ It downvoted becuse it answers different question and does not adress question asked. Not a problem overall, as there are 2 answers which adress that aspect in good way, but q's are voted on case by case basis. It is a good answer, and seems useful to op, but. U could wrap it as frame challenge, as dirty trick, but we see that op on his own recognises that situation, so not that u opened eyes. Or u could have adresses op question even in a minimlistic 5-10sentences way, and then say "well it is not a major problem but this one is..". Good answer, stick here for longer u will get the tricks. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Apr 28 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not married to it. But do watch out for bears :-) $\endgroup$ – wingnut Apr 28 at 8:28

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