The Coastal Post - November, 1995

Letter From Chile—Under The Ozone Hole


During the last two weeks of September and into mid-October, hardly a day went by that La Prensa Austral, the daily newspaper for the huge area that encompasses the southern tip of South America, did not have an article about ozone and, to a lesser extent, ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Five years ago, when I first came to Punta Arenas, a modern city of a little over 100,000 people, the subject was hardly mentioned officially. Even three years later in 1993, the subject was muted. Clearly, things have changed.

Dr. Jaime Abarca, the only dermatologist in the entire region, was trained in the U.S. and completed a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic a few years ago. He was one of the few people in South America who realized in the late 1980s that the massive springtime ozone depletion over Antarctica was affecting the frigid, windswept, triangular, cone-shaped tip of South America "el cono sur," the southern cone.

I still have the piece of paper he used in 1990, to draw a picture for me, explaining there was evidence that the ozone hole, when breaking up, moves north, affecting parts of Chile and Argentina, and even Brazil as far north as 30 degrees south. (Punta Arenas is 53 degrees south.) This encompasses an enormous populated area. No one imagined then that the ozone hole itself would move over his city! One wonders what's next. Since less ozone means more ultraviolet radiation passing on down somewhere, he did not know what this might mean for the people on the ground. He still doesn't know. No one is looking.

Abarca was clearly frustrated the night I had dinner with him in his home. He works two jobs, and had just gotten back from a meeting of Latin American Dermatologists in Buenos Aires where he presented a paper. "It is my clear clinical impression, that on certain days in the springtime, I get more patients coming in with acute photo dermatitis," he said. "I wanted to see if there was a correlation between these days and days of heightened ultraviolet B radiation. I asked the local university, which has two expensive spectroradiometers for this information, and they never answered my letter. I would like to find out what is going on and I do not want to wait fifteen years for the cancers to begin showing up." We talked about the newspaper report that the city had been under the ozone hole for twenty days last October.

The next day, a long interview with Abarca appeared in La Prensa with two tables of data showing what he called a "tendency" towards an increase in skin diseases associated with ultraviolet radiation. The front page banner headline said, "Skin diseases tend to increase."

The quotes in the article seemed forceful and critical for a man usually so cautious. He told me the night before that he had tried to publish his research in the American Journal of Dermatology and had been turned down because the editor wrote that the subject was not high on the Journal's list of priorities. His frustration and isolation were clear. It seemed odd for this subject to have a low priority, since ozone research is multi-billion dollar big science and big business in the U.S.

A few days later three early theorists of ozone depletion, Shelly Rowland, Paul Cruzen and Marin Molina, received the Nobel Prize for the chemistry of a "low-priority" subject.

The editor of La Prensa also printed a strongly-worded editorial "An Appeal for Alertness" calling for openness and action concerning ozone depletion and what it meant to the city and region. A week later the governor of this vast Region XII, the Intendente, announced, from then on, there would be daily reports on ozone levels and the percentage of ultraviolet radiation. He stressed there was no indication in the short run that the region was being unduly affected, and he did not want to exaggerate the problem and frighten tourists who might want to come.

Region XII consists of four provinces, Ultima Esperana, Magallanes (Magellan), Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica Chilena. It is bigger than Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Slovenia combined. Its official population is 143,198. The people here are warm and friendly, but it is a hard place to live and make a living. An unusual series of blizzards struck this August which killed 400,000 sheep and thousands of cattle. The fishing was bad last summer and in the winter, when there is usually little wind, hurricane-like storms sank a number of fishing vessels. Lately a new type of poisonous "Red Tide" plankton has appeared, hurting the shellfish industry. Many blame this sort of thing on "Global Warming."

The unemployment rate and the birth rate are high and young people who are very well educated here, have to migrate—somewhere. Tierra del Fuego for example, has lost 26 percent of its population. There is much to draw the right kind of tourists to this beautiful region, and everyone wants this part of the economy to succeed. So the Intendente has lots to worry about besides ultraviolet.

After the Intendente's announcement, the news reports jumped dramatically. The Department of Atmospheric Physics of the local university (a first-rate institution) announced a cooperative program with Brazilian researchers to launch 40 balloons sondes that use and discard automated equipment from the U.S. to measuring the vertical distribution of ozone up to 40 kilometers in the stratosphere. This regional government representing a population of under 200,000 is contributing funds on par with an organization representing 200,000,000. It seemed way out of balance to me, but an indication that the local leaders might be confused about what to do, and had opted to follow scientific advice—which is always to spend more money on science.

Reassuring reports of high levels of ozone began to appear, and the director of the research program a meteorologist, predicted this year's ozone hole might be weak. Balloons were launched making the front page of the biggest national daily newspaper, El Mercurio the "New York Times of Chile."

On October 11 a researcher from the University (actually a graduate student) began a series of announcement on the sudden drop on ozone levels. On October 12, they dropped from 330 Dobson Units (about normal for this time of year) to 228, to 185 to 183 which is well within the boundary of the Great Springtime Antarctic Ozone Hole. What did this mean to those of us on the ground? No one knew. And no one could say.

October 12 is a national holiday in Chile, known as "Dia de la Raza" (Day of the Race), celebrating Spanish heritage. There were outdoor celebrations and parades. I watched a wonderful group of dancers from Austurias, the coal mining region of Spain, performing a dance called the "jota"—with a stray dog joining in barking out of tune. Boys in long capes sang Spanish songs and playing guitars and mandolins. Dignitaries applauded enthusiastically. What did the ozone hole mean to them?

Well, it meant nothing, really. It was freezing cold and a very strong wind blew down the streets. The sky was almost solidly covered with thick clouds all day. Earlier, in my favorite spot on the shores of the Straight of Magellan, I kept trying to take measurements with my Total Ozone Portable Spectrometer (TOPS). I did get a few measurements, but they were just a bunch of numbers to me—I have to send them to Texas to find out what they mean.

But a friend of mine, Bedrick Magas, a brilliant Electrical Engineer, poet, and environmentalist, one of the first call attention to the ultraviolet problem, provided me with his measurements from his continuously recording Solar Light 501 Ultraviolet Biometer, an unglamorous work horse instrument which simulates the human skin. Magas paid for it himself—no funding. He was called an eco-terrorist (a term picked up by Rush Limbaugh) for insisting that the Region was on the edge of the ozone hole in 1987! His measurements for October 11 show that in one-half hour period, the sunlight was strong enough to give a light-skinned person a sunburn in 21 minutes. Remember, this is sub-antarctic springtime!

The national newspapers picked up on these reports from the University, which over the next two days were strangely inaccurate, far from reassuring. Thirty people called in to a radio station wanting to know if it was safe to go out. People sensitive to the sun were told to stay home. However, walking around the crowded streets downtown, no one seemed to notice there was a "Crisis in Punta Arenas" as the New York Times of Chile put it.

When the Ozone Hole moved out over the Atlantic Ocean, the program director started making announcements again. Various numbers were mentioned as to when the ozone hole would be back, since its movements are periodic. Would it be back in 8 days of 10 or 14? Unphased by his failed prediction that the ozone hole mightn't come this year, he predicted 14 and said it might be weaker.

But he didn't say what would happen if there were no clouds this time, or maybe high, or partial cloudiness, when the sun, being two more weeks into springtime, would be that much stronger, and higher, and its rays would have a shorter path through the atmosphere. Or what if it were on a weekend when people like to get out after freezing all winter long?

Send up more balloons? A modern ritual to propitiate the offended gods—an exorcism perhaps?

Next: The Return of the Ozone Hole!