By Jim Scanlon
Over the past two years the Springtime Antarctic Ozone Hole has not been as large, or as deep as it was during the two previous years, nevertheless levels of stratospheric ozone over the Southern Hemisphere have been worse.
Previously the Ozone Hole only reached the tip of South America once or twice during the month of October for a few days. This year it passed over populated areas of Argentina and Chile September 13 and 14, October 12-15, October 31 to November 5 and again from November 10-13, reaching as far north as the city of Comodoro Rivad‡via. (Ozone levels over the Arctic, while not as low as over Antarctica, have been very low for the last two winter-spring seasons.)
The number of days of very low ozone/high ultraviolet radiation over the southern half of the earth are growing in an, as yet, unexplained way. Exposure later in November is particularly worrisome because the Ozone Hole has previously broken up by this time, when the sun is higher and it's rays stronger.
In a telephone conversation with the Coastal Post, Dr Rumen Bojkov of the World Meteorological Organization, confirmed that ozone is down and ultraviolet us up throughout the Southern Hemisphere with a record low of 166 Dobson Units being measured over the city of Ushuaia, Argentina in early November.
As regular readers are aware, due to editor Don Deane's obsession with verifying the environmental effects of ozone depletion, the Coastal Post reported from Patagonia, Bolivia and Peru on this subject every year since 1990 with the exception of 1993. Over the years, consciousness of, and sensitivity to, the increased skin burning powers of the sun have increased greatly. This process has accelerated over the past two years as more and more children and unwary adults have suffered sunburns. Other environmental effects are less obvious, but are certainly there although no one sees to be looking very hard where people live and if they are finding anything, they are not publishing.
I traveled by coastal ferry from Puerto Montt through the quiet waterways between uninhabited coastal islands to Chilean Patagonia from October 12 to the 16th. I had with me a Microtops II, a hand held precision instrument for measuring stratospheric ozone. This triumph of miniaturization, which easily fit into a jacket pocket, connects to a small Global Position Satellite receiver and gives accurate measurements as long as there is even a faint image of the sun shining through the clouds.
On October 14th and 15, although I didn't know it at that time, I caught the edge of the Ozone Hole passing over South America at 45 and 48 degree south. I didn't need an instrument to tell me something was different about the sun's rays-my skin told me. This is what I had felt and heard repeatedly since 1990! Despite the cool temperature, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the late time of day when the sky cleared of clouds, the sun's rays were very warm and penetrating. This unusual situation made many people on the boat uncomfortable and I was questioned repeatedly by other passengers who watched me with my pocket scientific observatory
What was different was that now my experience was being broken down and documented in terms of milliwatts per centimeter squared and stored digitally. This data has been given free to those who can use it, and is being analyzed by Forrest Mims III, the inventor, and the Solar Light Company of Philadelphia, the manufacturer.
Arriving in Puerto Natales, where I suffered a kind of snow blindness (with no snow around) in 1990 from a previous encounter with high levels of ultraviolet radiation, I found the town looking good, but unfortunately, my favorite hotel had burned to the ground.
Moving to Punta Arenas, a wonderful, small city a few hundred kilometers to the south on the Strait of Magellan, a cab driver told me that there had been an oil spill in Ultima Esperanza near Monte Aymond and that eleven cleanup workers had been taken to the hospital with sunburns-something unusual in this cold, windy land.
With my portable Microtops and the GPS, it was easy to take measurements of the sun's rays while doing other things. I learned that the eleven workers had suffered "class A" sunburns on their faces and hands and were treated on the 14, 15 and 16th of October. However when I spoke to the Director of the Department For Prevention of Risks of the state owned oil company, I was told that the dermatitis suffered by the workers had nothing to do with ozone or ultraviolet, although he acknowledged it was a new problem. In 1990 I was given a pamphlet by this same oil company denying that ozone depletion was a reality. I asked the Director if he thought that sunlight had changed, and he reflected for a few seconds and said: "I'm from this place and yes, you can tell that the sun is different now"
Because people know me from previous visits to Punta Arenas, and know of my interest in ultraviolet radiation, I was invited to appear on a morning radio program for an interview, and also to two locally produced television programs. The local newspaper, La Prensa Austral, published an article about
my interest in the environmental effects of ozone depletion.
The editor of this excellent newspaper expressed frustration that he wanted, but could not get, advanced information about when the Ozone Hole would pass over the city, and the region. I made the point that I always make-that the Ozone Hole was special and tended to distract everyone everywhere from the problem of global ozone depletion. That what was needed was to forget about "ozone" and think "ultraviolet!" Your skin tells you about ultraviolet, big science tells you about "ozone." Many factors
(including ozone in the stratosphere and troposphere) add up to the amount of ultraviolet that reached living things, but ultraviolet was the sum, the product, the end result, the bottom line! Why not measure ultraviolet?
All during my stay on the Strait of Magellan, I regularly reported my measurements and I believe this led to a greater sharing of information from the local Chilean scientists working with very sophisticated equipment belonging to the Brazilian Institute of Space Research. My Microtops however, produced consistently lower numbers than those officially released. My measurements from October 31 through November 2, showed ozone levels sufficiently low to conclude that the Ozone Hole was overhead. I thought that maybe my instrument was broken until it was announced that indeed the Ozone Hole had been over the region for three days including Sunday November 2, when the skies were clear and the sun was very hot.
The sun also shone bright and hot on November 3, and the 4th when I left. I had postponed my leaving twice and had to go. The 4th was very hot , almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and everyone I spoke to was uneasy about the intense rays. I had seen two men on Sunday with badly sun burned faces and hands. One I didn't get a chance to speak to, the other wouldn't speak to me other than to say he was Australian and he had sat in the sun for about two hours that afternoon. Just my luck. This was the first Australian I had ever met who wasn't talkative! I thought later he might not have been feeling well.
Every tourist I spoke to remarked on getting a slight burn and spoke of others who had gotten serious burns. An office clerk remarked that she had used sunblock with SPF 30 on her six year old daughter that Sunday and after playing in the park with her grandmother, her child had a reddened face. She wanted to know what SPF she should use. A friend told me his daughter's kindergarten class all had reddened faces. The director of the local radio station said, "Ten years ago no one here ever got a sun burn."
A horse trader from the Falkland Islands with whom I struck up and acquaintance had also asked me a few days before what sunblock to use and I had given him a small bottle of "Long's SPF 30." He stopped me in the street and jokingly showed me his bald head which was very red. " It didn't work." I reminded him I told him to wear a hat.
In Santiago I was amazed to notice no one knew of the environmental crisis going on in the South. I spoke to people coming from Argentina-nothing! There was one article about Punta Arenas about paving the streets.
But everyone I spoke to became immediately alert if I mentioned ultraviolet. They seemed to stand more erect, or sit up straighter and became eager to help.
I had no trouble tracking down a dermatologist whose name had appeared in an article about skin problems from exposure to the sun two years before. She immediately fit me in to here busy schedule at a large hospital operated by the Catholic University.
"No, there are no objective studies" she said. "I am not a research scientist. I am a clinician and I only know what comes through my doors. I see more people coming in with burns. Most people with burns do not go to the hospital. I see people with dark skins coming in. And suddenly we seem to be getting young people with skin cancers that usually show up only in very old people. Right here in Santiago!".
The University of Chile actually ordered a car and driver to take me to an appointment with the only Professor of Dermatology in the country. He said that he was convinced that something was happening and that increasing ultraviolet radiation was real, but he said that his statistics, so far, do not support an increase in any kind of skin cancers. "As a doctor I would like to prevent this from happening," he said.
He organized, operates and pays for the skin cancer survey with his own money, without any help from the University, the government or any other agency. Doctors reporting from ten locations in Chile also receive no assistance from anyone. So all support comes totally from patient fees to their doctors! He said he could easily get a graduate student to take over the study and could easily expand it to Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela and Mexico, but he couldn't afford to do it himself.
I should add that this man had had his luggage, passport and papers stolen in Buenos Aires and was due to leave the next day for a conference in Paris. And he fit me into his schedule! "We could use some help" he said.
In central Santiago I got a copy of La Prensa Austral a day late from Punta Arenas. The front page had two inch headlines "BURNING SUN" and "Increase in ultraviolet radiation reached dangerous levels yesterday" and "Clear skies coincide with extension of the Ozone Hole to the limits of the region."The entire second page was filled with ozone/ultraviolet stories.
But no one in Santiago was aware of what was going on, just as no one in Buenos Aires, and no one anywhere being aware of what is going.
A part of our atmosphere that has been in existence for at least 400 million years and perhaps much much longer, has been changed by unessential, really banal, human activities-in just 60 years! Really amazing! And few seeming to notice it is happening right now. Not in 2010 or 2050, but now!
A few hours before I left for Miami, I went to the second largest newspaper in Chile. I spoke to a staff reporter and I gave him a packet of papers with a copy of the headline from La Prensa Austral. "How come nobody knows this in Santiago?" I said. " I really don't know," he said shaking his head.
Why is it that you, dear reader, have to read about this in the Coastal Post?
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