Preservation of the Ozone Layer: Years later and so much more to do

by Ben Stockton​, Journal Operations Assistant

In an interview with a former student, the late Frank Sherwood Rowland recalled the moment when, after returning home from the lab, his wife asked him how his work was going. He replied, “The work is going well, but it looks like the end of the world”.

The frivolity of the prophesy in the early 1970s of Rowland, a former atmospheric chemist at the University of California, Irvine, is clear. Naturally it didn’t come to fruition, but there was the element of truth behind it. The research with his colleague Mario Molina (pictured below) created a new field of science and sparked major international intervention.

Rowland, left, works in the lab with postdoctoral researcher Mario J. Molina in January 1975. Twenty years later, they shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry - along with Paul J. Crutzen - "for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone."

Rowland, left, works in the lab with postdoctoral researcher Mario J. Molina in January 1975. Twenty years later, they shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry – along with Paul J. Crutzen – “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.” Image source: Flickr/UCI UC Irvine CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Signing of the Montreal Protocol

It is considered the most successful international agreement in history – by Kofi Annan, nonetheless. The signing of the Montreal Protocol on this day—September 16, 1987— showcased a worldwide unity of science, government and industry, the holy trinity of environmental lobbying. It instilled change that would transcend a generation of signatories.

As if like a pebble dropped into calm waters, the surface has only just been disturbed. After almost 20 years, the benefits of that lie in the wake this agreement will continue to ripple outwards for decades to come. In the US alone, it is predicted that these 197 signatures will eventually prevent 280 million cases of skin cancer in people born between 1890 and 2100. Despite the environmental and health benefits, it still seems quite remarkable that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both famous for their strong and traditional views of industry’s right to self-govern, gathered with the other UN world leaders to sign such close measures on the activity of industry, particularly in light of subsequent international attempts to tackle environmental issues.

The treaty detailed a phase-out of production of chlorofluorocarbons, more commonly referred to as CFCs, a component of refrigeration to hairspray. This reduction of CFCs, amongst other ozone-depleting substances, was a scientifically-backed proposal that aimed to reverse the ever-shrinking ozone layer, the blanket of stratospheric O3 that cocoons the Earth (O3 consists of 3 oxygen atoms in each molecule, as opposed to its diatomic cousin, O2). Change may be stirring, some must have thought at the time. However, today’s reality, that sees strong resistance to almost any international attempt to curtail industry’s enormous footprint unanimously and globally, could hardly be further from the green revolution envisaged. There has hardly been a whiff of anything of similar significant since.

One such example is the on-going plight of global warming lobbyists. Despite the overwhelming evidence of man’s effect on the rising global temperatures, the waters have been muddied by the few naysayers that continue to grasp the media, and  political and public attention. This incredulous practice is the focus of Naomi Oreskes’ 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, recently adapted into a feature-length documentary film.

The disparity between scientific consensus and public opinion is particularly noticeable in the US where a significant proportion of the conservative political class continue to deny the impact of man or shout-down global warming in it’s entirety. One such example used by Oreskes, a professor of scientific history at Harvard, is Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott—he does not allow state employees to discuss global warming as an effect of mankind as it is not “a true fact”. Such is the impact on the public, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication estimated in 2014 that only 63% of Americans believed global warming was happening and 35% denied that global warming was caused by mostly human activities. This is not even close to the 97% of peer-reviewed climate papers that support this claim.

Image source: Flickr/Povl Abrahamsen CC BY-NC 2.0

RSS Ernest Shackleton. Image source: Flickr/Povl Abrahamsen CC BY-NC 2.0

The first detection of CFCs

The study of ozone-depletion did not, in fact, begin with Rowland and Molina. They were inspired by James Lovelock, a man of name more suited to a rugged literary hero.

Lovelock detected the presence of CFCs in the air above Ireland and later travelled to the Antarctic aboard the RSS Ernest Shackleton (pictured above) to measure CFC concentration in collected air samples. Despite detecting CFCs, a tell-tale sign of human influence, in these desolate places, he drew the conclusion; CFCs are not harmful to the environment.

Back in California, Rowland and Molina began to study the molecule. They found that the incredibly stable CFCs could drift into the upper atmosphere without being broken down. Such is the stability of the molecule, it can exist unchanged for in excess of 100 years. However, at these high altitudes, Rowland and Molina hypothesized that the intensity of the UV light would be powerful enough to break the molecule, releasing a highly reactive chlorine atom. These so-called “free-radical” chlorines, react with O3 molecules in the tens of thousands, destroying the ozone layer. It was this finding that led Rowland to respond to his wife in such a way.

Image source: Flickr/NOAA Photo Stream CC BY 2.0

Image source: Flickr/NOAA Photo Stream CC BY 2.0

Hole in the ozone discovered

The publication of their seminal paper in 1974 was met by angry industry representatives. Still in the midst of the Cold War, the trade publication, Aerosol Age, decried Rowland and Molina as KGB agents. However,  evidence continued to mount in support of their findings (they would later share the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for this work).

It wasn’t until May 16, 1986 that the truly cutting blow came. Using techniques very similar to those still used today by the team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the South Pole, essentially a helium balloon with measuring instruments and a radio transmitter attached (pictured above), Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jon Shanklin, as part of the British Antarctic Survey, discovered the ozone hole.

The team reported dramatic increases in springtime loss of O3, insisting that “chemical causes must be considered”.  The perceived imminent threat of this expanding hole drove grave concern amongst the public, forcing the regulators hand. The personal threat of skin cancer and cataracts due to the increased UV radiation was real in the minds of the population and gained traction with the media.

Exactly 16 months after the publication of these findings, the UN met and signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
It seems that the success of this campaign began and ended with the discovery of the so-called “hole in the heavens”. Despite the public’s questionable understanding of the science of the ozone hole (despite popular opinion, it is in fact not a physical hole at all), the treaty did not falter. How, then, does this differ from other environmental issues? A solitary polar bear laying her belly flat against the disappearing ice, her white camouflage becoming evermore conspicuous amid the unrelenting encroachment of the blue-grey waters. Giant waves crashing down on costal settlements and hurricane winds blowing flat the trees that line the boardwalk. Parched earth—dry and cracking—as a helpless farmer looks on at his sun wizened crops. These images, that light up our TV screens and ink the pages of our newspapers, are striking of the increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

Behind the unpredictability however, lies an ever dependable fact: the globe is warming. But despite this, the campaign continues to stumble amongst public indifference and political denial. When will the undeniable “hole” emerge for global warming? And of greater concern, what will it be?

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