The Coastal Post - December, 1995

Letter From Chili:

Who's Afraid Of The Ozone Hole?


The ozone hole did not return to Punta Arenas this October, after rotating serenely over the South American city on October 14. It moved out over the immensity of the South Atlantic Ocean, and for reasons unknown, lost its elliptical shape, shrank slightly, and became symmetrical again over the Antarctic continent and its surrounding ice and waters.

Of course, no one in the city knew that this would happen. The headlines and confused warnings of critical levels of ozone loss dropped totally out of the news and did not reappear. There was no retrospective review of what had happened. There was no indication of any human or environmental problems at all, let alone any catastrophe. But like a hangover, its effect was there under the surface. You only had to mention the subject of ozono to get a quick reaction.

You had the sense everyone was observing a nervous silence, waiting for something to happen, afraid that something unexpected would come along, if not next week, then maybe next year or the year after for the next 20 or 30 years, when scientists predict "things will get better."

I went to see the governor of the region, a handsome, well-dressed, genial person who would not be out of place in any board room or government office anywhere in the civilized world. He said with an air of resignation, "This thing is not going to go away. We have to learn to live with it."

He showed me a pamphlet to be distributed to school children. I asked if the young people might be getting too many warnings about drinking, drugs, sex—an overdose of warnings? He shrugged his well-tailored shoulders and said sadly, "We have to do something."

We talked about the dramatic attention the ozone hole was getting, and that there might be a more insidious problem later in the summer here, and all over South America and the Southern Hemisphere. He invited me to attend a meeting of the "ozone committee" which was to meet in a few days.

I read in the newspaper a few days later that the governor resigned public office to go back into business. For the rest of the month, not a word about ozone or ultraviolet appeared in the local newspaper. I left Punta Arenas October 31 for Santiago, the capital, a huge, beautiful, clean and orderly city 20 degrees latitude further to the north. The mild spring weather was beautiful, but so smoggy you could not see the slopes of the high Andes just a few hours away to the east. Smog was the big problem here: ultraviolet light striking waste hydrocarbons from automobiles, cooking and heating fuel, creating ozone which irritates the eyes, throat and lungs and destroys plant tissue. Too much ozone here, too little up there!

An article appeared in El Mercurio, the national newspaper, reporting that the ozone hole had returned to its symmetrical shape over Antarctica and that it was now estimated to be 17 million square kilometers, substantially smaller than the 24 million reported a few weeks ago—the smallest in the last three years. It was, I supposed, meant to be reassuring.

When I got home, I downloaded the Antarctic Ozone Bulletins published by the World Meteorological Organization of the World Wide Web. They were not reassuring at all. Bulletin 6/95 (October 18) indicated, "The most significant event of the past ten days was that on October 12-14, the ozone hole expanded in the direction of the southern cone region of South America to cover populated areas." This also happened October 14-20, 1994. I knew this because I was there.

Report #7/95 (October 27) noted the hole's elliptical shape returned to circular and shrank somewhat—which was the basis for the reassuring report noted in El Mercurio.

But then Report #8/95 (November 8) noted the hole changed back to "strongly elongated elliptical at the beginning of November...and rotated from 270° west to 90° east." Since the size reported had increased again from 17 to 20 million kilometers, this should have brought it over Punta Arenas again on about November 5, when the sun, being higher, would be much stronger. I saw nothing in the newspaper. Although this year's ozone hole was somewhat smaller than the previous two years, it was essentially the same, with a 60% deficiency in ozone extremely low temperatures and "...nearly complete annihilation of ozone in the layer between 14-19 kilometers."

The day before I left Santiago, a long, front page article appeared in El Mercurio on the growing number of medical problems throughout Chile caused by exposure to the sun's rays. More people were coming in suffering from sunburns. Whereas these kinds of cases usually started in December, they were now starting in October, and involving people with dark skin—cases they never had before. People were now coming in who were not sun bathing at the beach, playing sports or walking in the country. Over the past six years I had spoken to ordinary people from Tierra del Fuego to the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, many of whom said the sunlight where they live has changed and that their skin burns more easily. Now, medical doctors are beginning to recognize this fact, and more, even speak about it.

Do you, dear reader, feel the sunlight more sharply on your skin? If the ozone layer is a shield, is the light from our sun pointed quanta of light like swords, darts or needles?

Hopefully soon, even our scientists will begin moving away from their irrational, displaced obsession with measuring stratospheric ozone, and recognize that what is important is the ultraviolet radiation that actually reaches the surface of the earth where we live with our children and our cats and dogs and where our gardens grow.

Perhaps there is hope. When I got home, I faced a large box with accumulated two month's junk mail, bills and magazines. The first magazine I touched, Nature, October 26, 1995, contained an article: "Effects of clouds and stratospheric ozone depletion on ultraviolet radiation trends."

The first paragraph began: "Anthropogenic depletion of ozone in the lower stratosphere has been of global environmental concern for two decades, but the environmentally relevant quality—the flux of solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) reaching the Earth's surface—remains poorly quantified..."

Admission of ignorance is an essential step on the road to knowledge.

Ozone Decay Unparalleled

Vienna, November 28 (Reuters)—The hole in the earth's ozone shield, which filters out cancer-causing ultraviolet rays, covered an area twice the size of Europe at its seasonal peak in October and grew at an unprecedented rate in 1995, the United Nations said today.

The United Nations World Meteorological Organization said the ozone hole over the Antarctic began to expand earlier than usual this year.

There was "about one percent per day ozone decline during the entire month of August," the organization said in a statement.

"This caused the ozone hole to expand more rapidly than in previous years," reaching a maximum of 7.7 million square miles, it said.

The ozone shield's depletion lets more of the sun's ultraviolet rays reach the earth's surface, where it can damage corps and cause skin cancer as well as cataracts in humans.

A World Meteorological Organization expert, Rumen Bojkov, speaking at a preparatory meeting for a top-level ozone conference here, said ozone depletion in 1995 was unprecedented.

"The ozone loss at the end of November over Antarctica continues making the ozone hole phenomenon of 1995 the longest-lasting on record," he said.