Though a small nation, Kuwait has an outsized role in oil production. The country has an estimated 94 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, about 9 percent of the world’s total. The oldest and largest of Kuwait’s oil fields—the Greater Burgan field in southeastern Kuwait—produces about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day.
The Greater Burgan is comprised of three smaller fields: Burgan, Magwa, and Ahmadi. The first oil well was installed in Burgan in 1938. Oil was discovered at the Magwa field in 1950 and at the Ahmadi field in 1952. The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of a portion of the Burgan field on September 27, 2009. (Download the large image to see the broader area.)
ASTER combines infrared, red, and green wavelengths of light to make false-color images. Vegetation appears red; buildings are white and gray; water is light blue; roads are gray; and the desert is tan. In the top image, a network of interlocking roads connects individual wellheads. The parts of the desert that appear to be stained a darker brown are most likely the remnants of oil lakes and tar mats that formed after oil well fires were ignited during the Persian Gulf War. In the wider view (bottom), Ahmadi, a wealthy suburb of Kuwait City and home to the Kuwait Oil Company headquarters, appears red due to trees and lawns.
Gas flares appear as orange specks with streams of black smoke. When crude oil is brought to the surface, natural gas (usually methane) comes up as well. When there is inadequate infrastructure to capture the methane, oil companies generally burn the gas to avoid releasing it directly into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide. While flaring continues in Kuwait, the volume has declined in recent years. While 17 percent of gas produced by the Kuwait Oil Company was burned off in 2005, approximately 1 percent was burned in 2011, according to the company.