The Coastal Post - October, 1995

Ozone Hole Grows and Grows

(When It's Not Supposed To)


Today, the day before I leave for Tierra del Fuego, "the uttermost end of the world," to bask in the altered light coming through the thinning ozone layer, the wire services issued a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that the Springtime Antarctic Ozone Hole is already twice the size it was last year. (Lucky me! It should pass directly over where I am going to be.)

Already, the Ozone Hole, is reported to encompass almost four million square miles, or roughly the size of Europe. Last year the area of near total absence of ozone was 24 million square miles.

What was not reported was that after the ozone hole disappeared last year, ozone levels were lower and lasted longer through the summer when sunlight is stronger and shines almost all day.

The news report said that, "...The accelerated formation of the Ozone Hole had surprised, but not alarmed, experts who predict [it] will get worse before it recovers."

This last statement alarmed me but didn't surprise me. Last year I attended the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In the symposium on ozone depletion it was prominently mentioned that the "recovery" had begun then.

The catastrophic loss of ozone over Antarctica and serious losses at mid and high latitudes of both hemispheres of the previous years were attributed to the effects of sulfur dioxide pumped into the stratosphere by the explosive eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. Since the S02 had settled out, it naturally followed that the "recovery" had begun.

One wonders why the experts are not alarmed. The widely accepted explanation for the sudden worsening of the ozone hole in 1992 was Mt. Pinatubo. If the effects of Mt. Pinatubo are not there, and the Ozone Hole is faster, bigger, longer. It seems just barely possible that the experts just might be wrong.

Well, I guess I'll just have to go down there and find out for myself.

Letter From ChileŅI


The last time I left Punta Arenas the freezing wind was so strong that elderly people had to be escorted onto the plane. The airport had been closed for two days and I could not understand why it had been opened. This time I was pleased to get off the plane and not get knocked down. September is still early spring in the southern hemisphere and it was mild and pleasant.

Then I wasn't prepared for the cold and it was. This time I was prepared and it wasn't. Must be a universal law.

Unusually heavy snows blanket Patagonia during July and August. The newspapers referred to the snows as "the white earthquake." From the air the place looked like Antarctica, which it isn't too far from. Actually, the glaciers that fall from the Andes to carve out the valleys and fjords of the Pacific Coast form the largest mass of glacial ice outside of Greenland which isn't green, and the White Continent, which is.

In 1990, when I was last here, there was a drought running five years which matched California's four-year dry spell. Now, melting snow and ice were filling streams, overflowing banks and cutting off towns. I might have to wait before traveling north.

The political situation had changed and warmed up during the last five years. The military government that had been in power for 17 years gave up its control voluntarily and had stepped backŅbut only a few steps. It seemed then too good to be true. But then, maybe it wasn't true.

Troubling questions of punishment for crimes committed under military rule were never addressed. In Argentina, many military officers had been jailed and by now had been pardoned by the President Carlos Mienem, who had himself been imprisoned by the military. He said more than once that the country had to forget and get on with life.

Chile had been frozen, so to speak, and slowly thaws. The economy blooms, democracy seems to flourish, it enjoys a free press. There is a monument to the disappeared and the courts upheld the conviction of two high-ranking army officers for a murder in the U.S. The army didn't make a move.

Then on September 11, this year, on the anniversary of the military coup in 1973, a violent leftist demonstration broke out in Santiago. Stores were looted, barricades erected, a few people were killed and many injured. Banners appeared of Che Guevara carried by the Movement of Left Revolutionaries (MIR, the Russian word for "peace" and "the world.")

This was like a bad dream, or Grade B Hollywood horror film. The Frankenstein monster that everyone thought dead after the close of the last episode was alive, yes, alive. Defrosted from a block of ice and back.

General Pinochet, who had led the coup 22 years before, started to speak cryptically, and these rumblings of another dangerous power made the headlines. Scarey.

During the four-day celebration of Independence from Spain, I heard and read so many pleas for "perdon" and "reconciliacion" that I started to get nervous. The message seemed to be "forget, or else."

Five years ago, when I heard "reconciliacion," I remember hearing "Justicia!" When South Americans call for justice they do not mean giving the accused a fair trial a la U.S.A. They mean they want the guilty punished and everyone knows who the guilty are. So, the upwelling of feelings frozen after so many years of authoritarian rule continue to vent, and there is fear they will overflow and provoke a violent reaction again.

Three-thousand beautiful, healthy-looking students marched in Punta Arenas on Independence Day, followed by parties and drinking and eating with friends. Chilean flags were everywhere.

The flag consists of white, for the snows of the Andes, red for the blood spilled on battlefields, and a five-pointed white star in a blue firmament. This southern star, if it represents our star, the source of life on earth, is now a source of fear and unquiet in the South.

In 1990, very few were openly concerned about the effects of ozone depletion. Now things are different.

The national paper El Mercurio printed a lofty article on how the ozone hole would get worse for 10 years before it got better. Two days later, two local papers printed detailed reports on the local connection to the ozone hole.

Five years ago a friend of mine was being hounded for "frightening the people" by insisting that people had to be told how to protect themselves from increased ultraviolet radiation and claiming that the edge of the hole passed over Punta Arenas in 1987. Now, one article claimed the city had been under the hole already in August this year and had been under it 11 times in 1994. My friend had been called an eco-terrorist. This year's hole is expected to be bigger and last longer, but no one is being told what to do.

The local government has granted 40,000,000 pesos (380 p=$1 U.S) to launch 40 balloons to study ozone. This region, not a rich one, has 180,000 people in an area one-third the size of Italy. About 100,000 live in Punta Arenas. Unemployment and emigration are high.

That the local government could come up with this kind of money is impressive. One gets the sense they have been left in the lurch by SantiagoŅand the rest of the world for that matter.

There is very little doubt that the southern springtime sunlight has changed. The sun feels stronger. Everyone burns faster. Some burn very fast. This is a terrible thing that no one really wants to face. One can hardly blame the local government for spending money to survey the heavens while trying to ignore what goes on in this god-forsaken, uttermost end of the earth.