The Coastal Post - December, 1998

The Uttermost End Of The Earth-Punta Arenas

By Jim Scanlon

I arrived in Punta Arenas on October 2 in the afternoon. It was cloudy and had rained that day. After I bought the local newspaper, I learned the region was under the Antarctic Ozone Hole. There was a "side bar" notice on the front page "People of Magallanes become aware of the dangers of UV radiation." No one seemed particularly concerned since it was so cloudy. I wondered what, if anything, the increased ultraviolet, not stopping in the stratosphere, might be doing if it wasn't reaching the ground?

On page 5, "Worried Residents Buy Sun Protection Products," a half page article appears with a photo of a display in a pharmacy window of sun glasses and tubes and bottles of sun blocks.

On the back page, the top one-third is devoted to an article headlined "We are still under the ozone 'hole'," with an Earth Probe TOMS graphic of the ozone hole just west of Tierra del Fuego. This recent graphic really isn't much different from the famous NASA Ozone Hole graphic of October 17, 1987 which originally aroused my interest in this region.

The national newspaper, El Mercurio, an otherwise excellent newspaper, sometimes called "The Wall Street Journal of South America," has printed very little about the problems Punta Arenas is having dealing with increased ultraviolet radiation due to ozone depletion. Although it regularly prints short miscellaneous articles of general interest about all provincial cities including Punta Arenas it has never gone into detail or reflected the anxiety apparent in the local newspaper and among average citizens of the city.

I am a great admirer of the local paper, La Prensa Austral, and the courage of its editor, but after the Ozone Hole breaks up in mid to late November, the subject of ozone/ultraviolet drops our of sight-and is not mentioned on its website.

The only conceivable explanation for these lapses is that everyone knows and choose deliberately not to print. One has to come to the same conclusion with regard to all the major newspapers of the United States. (However, since they have presently so debased themselves and seem to merely copy from one another, and posture their morality, their ignorance is understandable, if not forgivable).

This is a strange situation in which I find myself-something very important is going on, few seem to notice, and I don't quite know what to make of it.

So far, almost all the money spent here to keep track of the ozone hole and its effects, has come from the budget of a very small city. The national government takes no notice and contributes no money, and, as far as I can tell, no resources. A local Roman Catholic social welfare agency has managed to come up with enough money from German Catholics to set up a network of four ultraviolet radiation monitoring stations in the four far flung provinces that make up a region, roughly one third the size of Italy with a population of 150,000. The network will give local health advisories, and the data will be stored centrally for scientific use. The system, once it gets going, will allow each province to alert residents when they should take extra precautions against higher than normal ultraviolet radiation.

However, there is still no organized effort to monitor health effects on humans or animals, although such a system was recommended by US EPA sponsored scientists, who made a quick but thorough survey in 1992 looking for acute effects of ultraviolet light. They didn't find "acute affects" then, but recommended that the situation be carefully monitored if things got worse. Things have gotten worse, but no monitoring system.

The local university (remember the city has a population of 110,000 in a large region with 153,000) is setting up studies of terrestrial plants and plankton and, I believe there is a cooperative agreement with the University of Tromso in Norway. Today I read in the paper that a group of French Scientists will be conducting a study of the effects of ultraviolet on plankton and specifically on the worrisome plankton that produce toxins that kill fish, and occasionally, humans.

There seems little doubt that the local authorities were slow in recognizing the ultraviolet problem. But they have reasons which are understandable: unemployment has always been a problem here, and tourism is seen as vital to the local economy. They understandably do not want to frighten away a goose that lays a golden egg. What seems to have changed the system of denial they have maintained for perhaps five or six years has been the sudden increase in the number of sunburns in children. The country, as a whole, is child and family oriented and Magallanes is more so.

Last year, and to a lesser extent the year before, a number of children (how large, I don't know) were taken to clinics with serious sunburns while playing around their homes on those occasional days in November and December when the sun shines. I personally saw two adults with severely burned faces and hands in the central plaza early last November, and heard of others, tourists caught unawares. This sort of thing never occurred before in a place occupied continuously since 1880. Something new under the sun.

In 1990 I spoke with a horticulturist who was convinced that something had changed in the spring time sunlight, but that he had not seen any effect in plants. Now, this year, I heard that last year there was extensive damage to new growth leaves on trees. They curled up and died. Of course the trees weren't killed, but one wonders what effects this slowly rotating "Hole", a source of unusually intense ultraviolet radiation, is having on the vast reaches of the Great Southern Ocean?.

This problem should actually be more pronounced in Argentina and the Faulklands-Malvinas Islands, on the other side of the Andes where it is dryer, and in parts of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for that matter!

On November 5, 1995, El Mercurio printed a report on unusual sunburns early in the spring all over Chile, with people with dark skin getting burned. One gets a glimpse of a problem and then it disappears and isn't mentioned again.

Just after I got here, an editorial appeared in the Sunday edition of La Prensa, "Learning to live under the sun." It said, in effect, that there is nothing we can do about this "ecological disaster," it's out of our hands, so we have to do what we can for however long it lasts and there is no end insight. Sorrowful resignation with just a hint of anger that the problem came from somewhere else.

No one I spoke to-except two scientists at the university-had heard of an "Arctic Ozone Hole." Perhaps this news might provide some kind of bitter consolation to the Sunday editorial writer-probably not..

Definite confirmation of a second "Ozone Hole" over the Arctic and public awareness of that fact will certainly provide a tremendous impetus for new restrictions on substances that destroy ozone. We may even see restriction going beyond bans on select molecules to restrictions on all atmospheric contaminants. There are good reasons to believe that the build up of "Greenhouse Gases" is contributing to both Ozone Holes by cooling the stratosphere and keeping polar temperatures lower, longer. CFCs contribute to both ozone destruction and to "global warming" and are therefore doubly dangerous. All heat trapping gases therefore contribute to ozone depletion.

Kyoto meets Montreal.

If it is also confirmed, even partially, that the massive rivers of air moving about our planet have changed, and will continue to change, because of the way we discharge waste industrial gases-then, this will confirm we have brought about the most momentous biological event on earth in, perhaps, two and a half thousand million years! A return, if only partially, in a fraction of a second in deep geological time, to the primordial high ultraviolet ambiance-to a negation of the aerobic revolution of blue green algae! And to think we have done this, not with nuclear weapons, but with spray cans, air conditioners, foam cushions and electronic chip cleaners!

It is difficult for me to believe that I am the only one who thinks this way, and is talking this way and writing this way.

It is a Y2,500,000K problem for which we, like the Sunday editorial writer, have no software fix. We are helplessly sleepwalking into our new millennium.

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