Coastal Post Online


November, 2003

Letter From Chile (From Beneath The Flat Earth)
By Jim Scanlon

A Chilean friend brought to my attention an unusual eight day workshop being presented by the University of Tarapaca in Arica, Chile, a seaport in the shadow of the Andes, one of the driest spots on earth. The subject, "Radiacion Solar Y Sus Efectos" (Solar Radiation and Its Effects), was very interesting, to me, and since I am acquainted with the main attraction, the internationally recognized atmospheric scientist, Sasha Madronich, and since I can't stand being in the United States during elections, I voted absentee, signed up and left Lalafornia.

One of the many nice things about traveling to South America or anywhere off the usual tourist track, is that it subverts your usual sense of time and place. In about twelve hours you go from early fall to early spring, or from winter to summer, not that that matters too much with a place like Arica which 18 degrees South of the equator, and is officially in the tropics, but if you look in a guide book to see how much it rains there, you see zeros for every month of the year-hardly "tropical." Travel forces you to feel and to think differently, in spite of yourself. The seasons are reversed, water spirals counterclockwise down the bathtub drain and hurricanes revolve the other way and then, there are all those people.

Arica is small, clean, bright and beautiful; the weather could not be better, sunny, warm, but not hot, with a breeze blowing off the Pacific. Set in the bleakest , most desolate of deserts, it owes it's life to a few thin rivers that flow from the disappearing snows of high Andes and underground water that seeps 4,000 meters down from the Bolivian Altiplano above. The incredibly huge mass of rocks that make up the Andes was dredged up from the ocean floor over millions of years and stretches from Venezuela, around through Columbia, Equator, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, plunges into the sea and comes up and continues in Antarctica. This barrier keeps moisture mostly on the Atlantic side.

Although Spanish is the language of the University, everyone spoke and understood to various degrees, English. Sasha lectured in clear, measured, English which I appreciated and I'm sure the native Spanish speakers appreciated even more.

There were no great revelations, that was not the purpose of the workshop. Basic, state of the art, principles of atmospheric physics and chemistry were reviewed and after delicious lunches, afternoons were devoted to familiarizing participants in the use of specialized mathematical software developed by Sasha at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

It was a big surprise to hear from a friend from Punta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan, that the president of Chile and the newly elected reformist president of Argentina had met in Santa Cruz Province in August this year and agreed to collaborate in studying the environmental effects of ozone depletion and global warming. They issued a statement urging all the industrialized countries to ratify the Kyoto protocol. This highly unusual meeting did not make the news in the US.

It was an even bigger surprise to hear from my friend that Chile, on its own, was setting up an integrated monitoring system to study ultraviolet radiation and its effects, from Arica to Punta Arenas along the coast, up in the mountains, and even over in Chilean Antarctica. A vast distance covering over 40 of latitude- a huge chunk of the world.

Several Chilean scientists reported on aspects of ozone depletion and ultraviolet radiation and the lone Argentinean led the practical, hands on, computer training with Sasha's open, free solar radiation software.

In the computer lab, we saw on NASA's EarthProbe TOMS Web Site ( that on October 6th, the Ozone Hole, just as big and deep as ever, passed well over the tip of South America and over El Calafate where the two presidents had met. Because the 2002 Ozone Hole split in two and broke up early, there was a lot of speculation in the press that the ozone layer was healing. Not so!

Another Chilean scientist presented a paper on unusually large numbers of children treated for severe sunburns during the summertime (December-February) in Santiago, the mid latitude capital, from 1996-2001. What was unusual about this study was that no effort was made to connect the implied increase in short wave ultraviolet B radiation with the springtime Antarctic Ozone Hole, a source of so much anxiety in Chile and elsewhere. Some other mechanism was implied.(More on this in the next Coastal Post!)

I spent the first free Saturday visiting one of the narrow desert valleys irrigated and cultivated for thousands of years by Andean water. It was an strange experience standing in a climate controlled room with two dozen, three thousand year old dead bodies, mummies. One, quite naturally, thinks of one's own mortality and of Egypt.

I made a mistake by going on a quick trip to Lake Chungara, a beautiful lake 4,750 meters (15,584 ft.) above the coast, on the Border with Bolivia (troubled by globalization then, and soon to erupt). Ten years ago I spent a month on the Bolivian Altiplano at around 3,000 meters or more and had been at similar altitudes in Peru and almost similar altitudes in California, I guess the trip to Chungara (Chung-ga-RAH) was too sudden.

The back of my head hurt, as if it was expanding but couldn't, and I felt light headed, although I walked and moved slowly and breathed deeply as in yoga breathing. I knew I was confused when I could not recall which button turned my camera off. I tried to remember the name of the city where I was staying, but couldn't. Nor could I remember the names of the two cities immediately to the south and to the north (Iquique and Tacna). But I could remember the big cities (Santiago and Lima), and so decided to just hold out until we went down and not torture myself any further. When we ate our late lunch in Putre, I remembered I was going back to Arica, but my head continued to hurt all that evening.

A week later I arrived in rainy Punta Arenas. I was told later that it had hardly rained or snowed all winter and that they really hadn't had a winter, with June, July and August being weirdly warm. It occurred to me that people brought up in Arica would know well the power of the sun, but wouldn't really, deep down, know what rain coats, rubbers and umbrellas were about. Similarly, people from Patagonia don't swim at the beach because the water is so cold it will kill you in about ten minutes. They had little experience with the power of the sun and sunburned skin until modern industrial chemistry produced the Antarctic Ozone Hole.

When I first visited Chile in 1990, the military dictatorship that had lasted 17 years was beginning to slowly fade from power. There were no Internet Cafes, hardly any computers, and no Internet to speak of. Now the big complaint (aside from the 25% hike in locally produced natural gas due to globalized pricing) is, no broad band internet! While the rest of the country is zipping along at fiber optic speeds, the town creeps along at 56K modem speed.

I was in an Internet Cafe where I couldn't help but notice a young man who, from the way he was dressed, and the way he was grunting and muttering and swearing at his computer, seemed to be an American unaccustomed to the slow speed.

He was, a big, strong powerfully built Chicano kid from New Mexico who came down to Rio Grande on the Argentinean side of Tierra del Fuego to marry a young woman he and had fallen in love with. They were having 9/11 immigration problems. I helped him understand he wasn't the only one suffering from narrow band communications.

He wanted to know what I was doing there, so I told him I was interested in the environmental effects of ozone depletion, like unusual, unexpected sun burns. He told me that recently his 12 year old step daughter was playing outside their house on a sunny day and after only about 15 minutes, came in with her face all red!

"Did she burn?" I asked.

"No," he said, surprised that he hadn't thought that odd, and that I should know to ask.

I asked if it had happened around October 6th, but he couldn't remember. I had seen that effect before, the skin turns bright red in just a few minutes, but unless you get more, you don't burn.

The next day, I ran into a friend who has climbed mountains in Antarctica, Europe, California and, of course all over South America. He was going to a get-together with two friends who had just trekked across the great temperate ice field of Chile. (Since they walked north to South, you might say they walked "down" or "up" the largest continental ice mass in he world after Antarctica and Greenland. The two men, a Norwegian and a Swiss, made the first unassisted traverse of the "Campo de Hielo Sur, Gran Patagonia" in two months hauling all their gear and food in amphibious kayaks which were fitted with sled runners. Photos will appear in National Geographic next year.

"The worst was at first when we had to climb the wall of the biggest glacier Borg, the tall one said, "I lost ten kilos [of body weight] on the trip."

I asked if they had problems with sunlight, since, even under normal conditions, snow and ice efficiently reflect ultraviolet. "No, but Thomas got snow blindness," he said.

"Was it October 6th," I asked.

"I don't know," Thomas said, "... but my eyes are still sore. It feels like there is something like sand rubbing under the lids. He took out his thick notebook and began leafing through page after page of incredibly small, perfectly lined, hand written entries.

Surprised he said, "It was October the 6th! How did you know? Was there any warning? We were working on the shade of a mountain out of any direct sunlight."

There can be no shade with Ultraviolet B. It is reflected and scattered by water, sand, snow and ice or droplets and can come directly at you from any direction. My one and only case of snow blindness happened 1990 just south of the ice field. So it's a really good thing the Chileans are setting up their own ground based, multi disciplinarian study program, including effects. Wouldn't it be nice if the US too did something like that too?

There is a lot going on down south here. Just this week "Science Magazine" reported that the Chilean Ice Fields are fast disappearing and contributing disproportionately to rising global sea level. Just a fraction of the millimeter rise to be sure, but a millimeter here, a millimeter there, and Venice and Holland are gone and, in a storm surge, Manhattan is under ten feet of water.

The problem as I see it is "Flat Earth" psychology.

The north always points up. People in the northern hemisphere have to standing upright in much the same way as people on the small, limited, flat earth of Bronze Age biblical societies. Consequently when the sun centered planetary system was visualized in the 17th Century, north had to be "up" to preserve the human psychological commitment to the self evident flat earth.

Since then our spherical earth is always depicted spinning counterclockwise. The conquered, despoiled, exploited, enslaved south is always down and its inhabitants left having to deal in whatever way they can with the psychological consequences of hanging down, below the flat earth. No one seems really to mind, except, perhaps the Australians.

Turn your globe "upside down" (If the manufacturer made it so such a heresy could be possible!) and see how long it takes for someone, maybe you, experiencing psychological vertigo, rights it!

With the south up, everything on the globe looks new and very strange and different. The viewer gets the disorienting effect of travel without leaving home. You get a drug effect without drugs, a high altitude effect at sea level. The solar system could be depicted with the "bottom up," but I doubt you will ever see it that way. It would be too uncomfortable for the people of the north.

There is no "u" and there is no "down" in the universe. These terms are just a conventions, like our year an accident of the orbit of our utterly commonplace sun on the edge of a commonplace galaxy. The sun's orbit, our year, is a puny, utterly insufficient measure of time and distance in a mass of exploding stars and colliding galaxies where light takes several eternity's just to get half way across. It's as ridiculous as using the "foot" as a unit of measurement, or the distance from Pharaoh's elbow to his wrist.

It is almost 500 years since Magellan and his crew demonstrated that we have one world and one great ocean of water. He took it for granted that we have one great gaseous ocean of air. It is well past time everyone acknowledged this great unity, and what affects one, in one place, eventually affects all of us together.


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