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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Satellite Photo of Embattled Iraqi Oil Refinery on Fire

By Phil Plait

The situation in Iraq is very bad. Militant insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have marched through cities, taking control of the second-largest Iraqi city, Mosul. They have clear designs on Baghdad and stormed an oil refinery in Baiji, about 200 kilometers (130 miles) north of the capitol city.

A huge battle ensued, and while the Iraqi government has claimed victory, it’s still not clear who controls the refinery, which is the largest in the country. But on June 18, 2014, the Landsat 8 Earth-observing satellite flew over the area and took the dramatic image above of the refinery on fire, thick black smoke billowing away.

I saw the picture originally tweeted by ClimateDesk. I went to the USGS Earth Explorer website and quickly found the original image. It was taken at 07:38 UTC (10:38 local Iraq time). I’ve not been able to find when the fire started, but it was clearly going strongly by then. In the full-resolution data the fire itself is clearly visible.

Journalists at Slate have been reporting on the situation, most notably Joshua Keating, who has been all over this. Incredibly, Fox News actually had Dick Cheney on to talk about Iraq, but also incredibly Megyn Kelly accused him of being wrong about much of what he said about it. In the meantime, President Obama has said he will send 300 military advisers into Iraq (ever since reading years ago about the lead-up to the Vietnam War, that phrase makes my skin crawl) and gave a press conference about his plans for what he will do about the situation.

Mother Jones has an article discussing what the implications are for a battle over Iraq’s oil.

The situation in Iraq and the surrounding countries is incredibly complex and has a host of factors driving it. But when I see the Landsat image, I can’t help but wonder: How would things be different if we relied far more on “alternative” energy sources than we do? It’s a conversation I wish our politicians weren’t so terrified to have.

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