THE HOLE in the SKY.

 The destruction of ozone by chemical

pollution threatens our planet!

Writes: Myles Harris.

* * * * *

FOR MANY YEARS NOW, (1987), our scientists in the Antarctic have been paying particular attention to the density of the ozone layer, a huge condensation of gas in the upper atmosphere that protects us from the harmful effects of sunlight. Fears had been expressed that it might be the first of the atmospheric gases to crumble under the strain of pollution.

Ozone is known to be particularly vulnerable to the constituents of aerosol sprays, refrigeration fluids, fire extinguisher propellants, industrial solvents and the gases used to expand polystyrene in such products as egg boxes and fast-food cartons.

Substances, known as CFCs, used in the manufacture of these products contain chlorine in a harmless form. They are very light and when released into the air float up into the ozone layer. There, under the action of sunlight, the chlorine is released. One part of raw chlorine will destroy 100,000 parts of ozone.

Losing the ozone layer, ecologists say, would expose the surface of the planet to a considerable rise in the amount of ultra-violet light coming from the sun. Not only would this produce an increase in skin cancers and cataracts in humans but also a partial destruction of the world’s vegetable and aquatic life.

While there is some debate as to how serious the latter effects might be, what is in no doubt is the effect of such gases on the world’s temperature.

As well as the destructive effect of chlorone , CFCs possess 100,000 times the insulating properties of the normal constituents of air, and should they reach the upper atmosphere in appreciable amounts they would, in effect, wrap an extra blanket around the earth.

In 1975 the Americans, reacting to the mention of their biggest tribal bogey, cancer, banned the most obvious source of these poisons, aerosols. But they did nothing about a whole range of other products. The average air-conditioned car, for instance, spills two pounds of chlorine into the upper atmosphere each year, while the crushing of a hamburger carton releases millions of tiny balloons of toxic waste into the air.

The other major producer, the British, probably scandalised by the thought of air-conditioned cars, formed a Stratospheric Research Advisory Committee.

As it turned out, American fears were unfounded.

Between 1957 and 1979 the density of the ozone layer remained, within minor limits, so constant that interest was largely lost. After a few years the Stratospheric Committee was allowed to die in one of the upper rooms of the Department of the Environment and the Americans, thinking they had better things to do with their 20-million-dollar Nimbus satellite, reset its chemical nose to measure more exciting things than low concentrations of ozone.

But, down on the southern ice cap, scientists of the British Antarctic Survey saw no reason to change their time-honoured routines. In meteorology you need patience. With instruments invented in 1931 they went on taking measurements over the pole. Even the name of the instrument they used, the famous Dobson spectrophotometer, relegated the whole business to a world of Ovaltine, wireless and Winnie the Pooh.

This was British science at its best — underfunded, socially divided and rather working class. The more these chaps are starved of money, you could almost hear the Sir Humphreys of the Treasury saying over their sherry, the harder they’ll try.

They were right. In 1985 the ancient spectrphotometers, brushing aside the radio signals of the American weather satellite, announced one of the very major scientific discoveries of the century.

                    A giant hole, swirling about in the cold Antarctic

air currents like water going down a plug hole,

                     had appeared in the sky over the Antarctic cap.

                     Reaching from 30.000 feet to 150.000 feet it now

                     covered an area roughly the size of the United


Through the camera eyes of the hastily reset American Nimbus satellite the hole appeared as a mass of conflicting colours purples , blacks, yellows and reds. A bruise on the earth’s surface. What exactly it meant for our future nobody knew. It appeared in early September. reached its maximum size in mid November and by early December was gone. It was to come back earlier and earlier.

Last week, (September 1987) at the British Antarctic Survey headquarters just outside Cambridge, I met the man who discovered it.

Described by a colleague as one of the last of the gentleman scientists’, Joe Farman is a rather sparrow-like man with bright blue eyes and a highly diverting, if most apparently random, flow of ideas. A physicist, he started life making abstruse calculations on missile flight paths for De Havilland but, tired of engineers who never listened to scientific predictions, and a keen mountaineer with an interest in seismology, he joined an expedition to the Antarctic in 1956. I asked him what the Antarctic was like. Beautiful and dreadful,’ he said.

Lighting a pipe that smelled like old blankets, he spoke about 1985.. ‘It was sure beyond all belief. One day we woke up to the discovery that the ozone over the Antarctic was falling away from us.’ He reached down behind his desk and held up three telephone-directory-sized books, a Nasa compendium of everything known about ozone. “All these’, he said with a grin, ‘had to be rewritten

I asked him about later reactions to his discovery. While their figures were never disputed the theory of how the hole was caused came under attack. Many scientists said it could be a natural phenomenon unique to the Antarctic, an idea that, not very unexpectedly, found considerable support among industrial producers. But the consensus now is tha t chlorine pollution is the cause.

He did not think it was safe to wait for further proof . If we did the results might be catastrophic. What we are seeing over the pole we might well see elsewhere very soon, suddenly and without warning . He showed me the latest readings from the Antarctic . A thin, pencilled line staggered across the page . This year the hole is much bigger.

Last week in Montreal negotiations began between 40 countries to try to reach international agreement on limiting the use of CFCs, a million tons of which leak into the stratosphere each year. The Americans want an 85 per cent cut, Britain and the rest of Europe 20 per cent. If you allow for the difficulties of policing such a treaty. the latter probably represents a small increase, something that Britain’s Department of the Environment may have been after all along. Certainly, Fiona McConnell of the DoE was, when I spoke to her, sceptical of the American position, describing it as having an element of hype’ . It is however unlikely that the DoE will be disappointed.

Third World countries, including Brazil and Argentina, are negotiating an increase in production. At the time of writing, reports from Montreal speak of “the forging of a historic treaty to ban CFC production.” Details of the agreement, arrived at n secret against a background of third world objections, represent, it is said, a compromise between the American position and that of the EEC. The treaty is yet to be voted upon by the conference in plenary session. Much more importantly it has to pass the difficult hurdle of individual ratification by member states, many of whom, especially in the third world, feel their commercial interests are being damaged.

But even if they all agree, any cut less than the 85 per cent asked for by the United States in the first place will he woefully inadequate.

This is a pity, because in Europe and North America CFC manufacturers will go along with any legislation, however stringent, that is imposed on them if it is effective. Self limitation and •codes of practice’ in an industry that turns over 30 billion dollars a year are out. Competition is too fierce. Governments must make the law, not companies. In the third world it is anybody’s guess.

What could happen? Nobody now doubts the warming effects over the next 50 years. The most frightening possibility is that something will happen suddenly. Many scientists, although reluctant to admit it. even to themselves, believe that the world’s atmosphere is poised on a knife edge. Just as the hole in the sky appeared without warning so a large volcanic eruption, a surface nuclear explosion or even perhaps some external event such as a solar flare might start a chain of events which will rapidly dim the lights of civilization. As the earth heats rapidly violent atmospheric disturbances could come, while within a year we could look on fields that had withered under a sun which had the power to hlind and destroy . For many more countries, even in Europe, famine would no longer he something watched on television.

Before I left Cambridge I asked Joe Farman if he felt frightened about the future. He was not, he said, doing much singing and dancing about it. Nature’, he added, “has not yet found the instruction manual on how to deal with this, but when she does, watch out.’


The SPECTATOR Magazine

September 19, 1987. (Pgs. 18-19)

Vol. 259. No. 8305.

56 Doughty Street, London, WC1N 2LL


Efforts during the last quarter century to save the ozone layer are finally paying off. In August, a study conducted by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences in Colorado revealed that ozone measurements have now stopped declining over the mid-latitudes of the Northen and Southern hemispheres, where the bulk of the woelr’s population resides.

Betsy Weatherhead, a co-author of the study, attributes the apparent improvement to international measures taken to reduce chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone- strafing chemicals.

Although the new findings are encouraging, experts disagree about when ozone density might return to normal, pre-1980 levels over most of the globe.

Some scientists believe we may never fully replenish what’s been lost. And our ozone loss above the Antarctic where numbing cold creates high-altitude clouds that speed ozone depletion, remains an intractable challenge.

“On the one hand, we think we have good news for where people live and get ultraviolet radiation and where we grow our crops,” says Weatherhead. On the other hand, the Antarctic ozone hole could persist for quite a few decades.”

                                                                                             —Jack KeIIey



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