Coastal Post Online

December 2000

Letter From Chile
Life Under the Ozone Hole

By Jim Scanlon

The edge of the Antarctic Ozone Hole covered southern Chile and Argentina for a record number of days this past October. It even reached Puerto San Julian at 49S latitude, about 350 miles to the north of the Straight of Magellan, up the Argentinean coast from Punta Arenas, where I usually stay. When I got there October 31, I asked my friend Ida if there had been any trouble with "ozono y ultravioleta." She said: "It was so cloudy and it rained so much , I didn't see the sun for a month." This was probably an exaggeration-but not by much. The weather here is cloudy and cold in the spring.

In November, the weather improved, the sun came out more than twice and the ozone hole stayed away-so far. Using the internet, I was able to check its position at a NASA web site. It was not as large as it sometimes is, and far away, displaced off the Antarctic Continent towards Africa and the Indian Ocean. The Internet has grown faster here than the Ozone Hole-two years ago, it was just starting and now there is incessant clamor for more "bandwidth." for fiber optic cable, and if the government won't lay a cable along the Pacific coast, then connect to the data backbone in Argentina!

But, even though the Ozone Hole might be far away, people are edgy about "ozono." I carry a Mictotops, a very small precision instrument that fits in my jacket pocket. In the other pocket I carry an even smaller global positioning system (GPS) receiver which accurately fixes the latitude, longitude and time from orbiting satellites. With the GPS data, the Microtops measures five different wavelengths of light and accurately calculates the amount of ozone overhead. People know me here. I've had my photo in the local paper so many times over the past ten years that I am often recognized in the street. Although there are now official public health announcements on ultraviolet levels in the newspaper, on the radio and the local television station, people ask me, "How is the ozone today?

I was stopped on the street by a woman who worked in a pastry shop I used to visit every day-they had exquisite alfajores, a Spanish cookie She gave me a big kiss and a hug and told me what I already knew, that the shop had closed. We chatted for a while abut all the changes in town and the she asked me, "How's the ozone?"

In ten years, Chile has changed immensely. In 1990, the civilian government was just taking over from the military dictatorship. General Pinochet was a ominous power just barely in the background until 1998 when he was arrested in London. Now, he is like a sick, hunted, but maybe still dangerous animal, facing extradition to Argentina and trial in Chile on 177 different charges. High ranking military officers have been indicted, some tried and sentenced, others nervous.

One case before the high court in Argentina has received extensive coverage in the press. It concerns a former secret agent of the Chilean military government accused of being involved in the murder of General Carlos Prats, the exiled former head of the Chilean armed forces and his wife when a bomb destroyed their car in Buenos Aires in 1974. I'm not sure if the man on trial will be convicted based the evidence as I read it in news reports in Chile and Argentina. However, the judge requested General Pinochet's extradition to Argentina to stand trial.

What is bizarre about this case is that secret testimony was taken by an American named Michael Townley, a former CIA agent who was arrested in Argentina some years ago and extradited to the US where he was not tried for anything. He became a federal protected witness. Townley admitted not only killing the Prats, but also killing the Chilean ex ambassador to the United States and his secretary with a bomb placed in their car In Washington DC. If this seems strange it is because it is strange!

I went to see my old friend Eduardo in Punta Arenas. His English parents died when he was six and he grew up on an orphan on an enormous estancia raising sheep and cattle. In 1990 and 1995, I toured the national park with him and listened to story after story about mountain lions, sheep rustlers, weird local self- administered medical treatments and rural renegades. A lot like the American west 150 years ago. As a young man he was a boxer "El Gringuito," the little Gringo. He joined the British army in 1940 and came close death only once after the war when he went into and out of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem a half an hour before it was blown up by Jewish terrorists. Everyone inside was killed.

His English is good but we usually speak in a mixture of Spanish and English. He asks me, as he always does, about "ozono" and if I think it really does much harm. He is afraid stories about "ozono" will keep the tourists away, the backpacking trekkers. Not waiting for an answer he asks me, "How eez Don Deene?" and "Why do you write so much about Esteeve Kinsey? You are not fair too much!"

I ask him a lot of questions about frog populations around Torres de Peine, the huge national park where he managed an estancia and hunted wild dogs and mountain cats that ate sheep. Sure enough, just as I knew he would, I get an exact description of where to go and who to see. A biologist from Utah State will be a happy man.

I met the biologist at a scientific meeting on the "Impacts of Ultraviolet Radiation on Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecosystems" in Mar del Plata Argentina. I flew up from Punta Arenas and flew back down a week later.

Argentina is a mess again. It is hard to understand how a country with so many natural resources always seems on the brink of bankruptcy. They were just getting over triple digit inflation in 1992 when I spent six weeks there in Patagonia. People were afraid of changing dollars. That changed dramatically in 1994 and 1998 when they couldn't wait to get their hands on my dollars. Now they won't change dollars again. Unemployment is high. Foreign debt is also high and a new loan package negotiated with the International Monetary Fund will probably make unemployment worse.

Striking workers in the province of Salta rioted after a picket was killed by police. They burned the municipal offices of two towns, cars, trucks and buses and blocked the main highway for days. Worst of all, they raided a police station and stole a pickup truck load of weapons. I'm not sure what happened in Salta, but when I got back to Chile I read of another riot in Rosario a big city further south.

The Argentinean newspapers carried front page headlines of a conference of Catholic Bishops which bitterly denounced ",..the tyranny of the economy" that disregarded the lives of people. The bishops reminded the government that they were responsible for a "social debt" besides "foreign" debt. Very strong criticism! Can anyone imagine just one Catholic bishop denouncing the free market system-and these was all the Catholic bishops in Argentina! Come to think of it though, no one, especially Catholic bishops, seems to get the connection between high birth rate and not enough jobs.

Bank robberies are up. There were 136 so far this year in Buenos Aires and Argentinean bank robbers have a nasty habit of shooting it out with the police. It is hard to imagine such nice people doing the things reported every day in the newspapers. It is also hard to tell if official corruption is up, because the papers have always been full of some huge scandal or swindle.

I was stuck in a railroad station in Buenos Aires for five hour waiting for the night train to Mar del Plata (about 350 miles away) and it was sad and painful to see so many tired looking 5 and 6 year old boys and girls, unattended, selling sweets and newspapers-in reality, begging. A group of these children were taking turns banging a baggage cart into the wall and a metal gate. Two angelic looking boys, one about 10, the other about 7 took turns jimmying coins from two public telephone boxes, one with a switchblade knife, the other with some kind of specialized tool. They went back to looking angelic whenever a policeman walked by. Their future doesn't seem too promising.

Mar del Plata is a resort city. It has a wintertime population of 600,000 which rises to 2,500,000 in the summer. It is really a beautiful, well kept place that seems completely composed of hotels, restaurants and wonderful pastry shops full of mouth watering, cakes and triple decker sandwiches. The many ice cream shops sell delicious ice cream by the kilo (2.2 lb.). Strangely, one doesn't see obviously obese people the way one sees them in US cities-although a recent survey claimed that over half the population of the country considers themselves overweight.

The scientific conference I went to was well organized and highly technical and was attended by leading atmospheric scientists from Europe and the US, not to mention Argentina and Chile and even Korea, China, Egypt and Kenya. Of course, the Coastal Post was the only newspaper represented, as it was the only newspaper ever represented at NASA's "Atmospheric Effects of Aircraft" conferences.

I got to the conference too late for Paul Cruzien's presentation. Professor Cruzien, you may recall, is a Dutch engineer who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work on the chemical reactions that produced ozone depletion which included the Antarctic Ozone Hole and now, the unappreciated new comer, the Arctic Ozone Hole. I spoke to him for a while and told him how much his 1997 speech in Santiago affected Chileans.(that the Ozone Hole would last for 40 or 50 years at least) He asked what newspaper I wrote for and I told him, but he didn't seem to recognize the name.

I got the feeling listening to the European scientists (and there were a lot of them) that the meeting might have been held in Argentina to get away from the European press. It could have easily been held in the US where corporate peon journalism sticks to the hum-drum and anything serious has to be spoon fed prepared press releases.

The meeting revealed little new about ozone depletion and ultraviolet radiation that readers of the Coastal Post who have followed this story do not already know. Let's just say that it has gotten worse and it will get much worse and there isn't much that can be done about it except try not to worry, be happy and monitor the symptoms in case there is something we might be able to do about it. No mention is ever made as to what the projected doubling of ultraviolet levels might mean to northern Europe-or southern Patagonia

Lots of detailed studies were presented by biologists, like the one from Utah State. They have a very hard job to do I assure you. Just think about how you might go about quantifying the effect of a change in sunlight on a grove of trees in a lot near your home, or the grass on your lawn? How do you figure out what hundreds of species of microscopic plants and animals are doing on a partly cloudy day in a cubic meter of churning sea water at 5C?

What I found interesting about Mar del Plata was the huge number of stray dogs all over the city. I was amazed that they are so well behaved. They just lie there on the side walk, asleep, or resting, as passers by walk over or around them. No one seems to mind. They don't bark or beg for food, or chase cars or each other. I looked for dog feces, but never saw any.

There are lots of stray dogs in Punta Arenas. Thousands of them, according to a friend who works in a dog shelter here. These dogs, chase each other and run after motorcycles. If a pick up truck comes by with a dog in it, a riotous commotion breaks out and ten or twenty dogs of all shapes and sizes howl and bay running down the main street. You can hear these chases blocks away.

Why are these two populations of dogs so different? Another mystery waiting to be solved. One can chose one's mysteries and chose one's adventures, or they can just happen to you.

Just before I left I met a blind Englishman on the beach along the Straight of Magellan dragging three automobile tires after him on a rope attached to a harness. He and his three companions were practicing dragging sleds across Antarctica. Four, very nice young men, quiet and smiling. One had been an advisor to Bay Watch. He remembered the episode with the small hover craft, but could not recall Jerry Knight of Forest Knolls who provided it for the show.

Niles, the blind man is extremely soft spoken and articulate. He wants to inspire blind people. I am not sure how blind people will react, but I was inspired by this quiet unassuming father of four children. Just after he left for Antarctica on a Ukrainian cargo transport, the wind started to blow. Then it stopped and when it sprang up again, the temperature had dropped to 5 . I worried about Niles and his sighted friends trudging along at minus 30 and shivered. It'll be January before they cross that frozen place. I hope they make it.

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