Vanishing Ozone—Are We Destroying Our Own Shield?
Imagine that you have to walk through a deadly, burning rain every day. Your only protection is an umbrella, one perfectly designed to repel the lethal raindrops. Can you just picture how precious that umbrella would be to you? Can you imagine the sheer folly of damaging the umbrella, perhaps even cutting holes in it? Yet, mankind is in a similar situation on a global scale.
OUR planet is bathed in a steady rain of the sun’s rays. While most of these rays are beneficial, bringing heat and light to our world, a small percentage are quite deadly. They are called ultraviolet-B, or UV-B, rays, and if all were to reach earth’s surface, they would kill everything living there. Happily, our planet was designed with an “umbrella” shielding us from these rays, an umbrella called the ozone layer. Unhappily, mankind is destroying that umbrella!
What is the ozone layer? How does it work, and how are we destroying it? Well, ozone is an unstable form of oxygen. It has three atoms of oxygen (O3) instead of the usual two (O2). Ozone occurs naturally in the stratosphere, absorbing the dangerous UV-B rays while allowing the needed and safe light to pass through. Furthermore, while ozone is easily broken down by other gases, in the stratosphere it is constantly being created by the sun’s rays. So it is a self-repairing shield. Quite a design!
The problems arise when man starts to inject his own industrial gases into this delicate system. Then ozone is destroyed faster than the sun’s rays can produce it. In 1974 scientists began to suspect that CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, are ozone-destroying gases. Yet, these CFCs are everywhere. They are used to make all kinds of foamed plastic products, from insulation to cups and fast-food containers. They are used as propellants in spray cans, as coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators, and as solvents to clean electronic equipment.
Recalled one scientist who reported the danger: “There was no moment when I yelled ‘Eureka!’ I just came home one night and told my wife, ‘The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.’” But since the invention of CFCs in 1930, many have hailed them for being nontoxic and remarkably stable. Were they wrong?
The Predicted Threat
No. Apparently they were all too right. Precisely because they are so stable, CFCs persist in their destructiveness. After CFCs leak from their discarded air conditioners and crumpled plastic foam cups, they slowly drift up to the stratosphere. There, bombarded by ultraviolet rays, they break up at last, releasing a real ozone killer: chlorine. Its molecules dance a deadly minuet with the fragile ozone molecules, destroying them and spinning off intact to find another unfortunate partner. One chlorine molecule may dance on in this way for over a century, obliterating a hundred thousand ozone molecules.
Alarmed scientists raised a hue and cry over the chief use of CFCs—propellants for aerosol sprays. By 1978 Canada, Sweden, and the United States had banned the use of CFCs in aerosols, but few other countries followed suit. What was worse, more uses were found for the hardy chemicals, so their production continued to soar. The United States still consumes one fourth of the world’s annual supply.
Armed with computer models of the earth’s atmosphere, scientists kept on warning that chemical contamination would gradually deplete the ozone layer, slowly letting more UV-B rays through. Industry and government pooh-poohed the scientists’ claims, calling their evidence flimsy and their conclusions unproved.
Discover magazine called this controversy the “Ozone War” and noted that researchers had “for years taken to viewing the issue as a gigantic global experiment: each year mankind pumps another million tons of CFCs into the atmosphere and waits to see what happens.” What did happen surprised everyone.
Instead of thinning smoothly by fractional percentages globally as all the computer models had predicted, the ozone level sharply decreased over the South Pole! In October 1984 a British team of scientists in Antarctica found that the ozone above them had dropped some 40 percent, forming the now famous “ozone hole.” At first, other scientists were incredulous. The British team was not well known. Besides, other atmospheric instruments had not registered any dramatic drops in the Antarctic ozone.
As it turned out, though, computers receiving data from satellites had been programmed to reject as erroneous any drop in ozone of more than 30 percent. The machines had been measuring the ozone hole for years but throwing away the data!
Scientists skirmished for a while over the cause of the hole. But instrument-laden planes flying through the ozone hole itself found the real culprit—chlorine from man-made chemicals! High above the South Pole is a huge vortex with clouds composed of tiny ice particles, giving the chlorine millions of tiny surfaces upon which it can do its deadly dance with ozone even faster.
Since then, scientists have apparently found a similar hole over the North Pole. Both holes are seasonal, opening and closing each year. The one over the South Pole is about as large as the United States; the one over the North Pole is about the size of Greenland.
How do these ozone holes affect you? They have passed over parts of northern Europe and have threatened southernmost South America, but you don’t have to stand under an ozone hole to be affected by it. Some scientists fear that the holes are producing ozone-poor air that spreads through both hemispheres. In fact, over the most populous parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the ozone layer has already been depleted by some 3 to 7 percent in the last 17 years. Previously, scientists had thought it would take a century for the ozone to drop by 3 percent!
The effects of the resulting increase in UV-B rays reaching earth’s surface will be far reaching. These rays cause skin cancer in humans. They also damage the human immune system and cause cataracts. Science News figures that increased UV-B radiation will “kill 3 million people either alive today or born before 2075.”
As atmospheric scientist Dr. Michael Oppenheimer puts it: “These changes are going to affect every human being and every ecosystem on the face of the earth, and we only have a glimmer of what these changes will be.” Increased UV-B radiation will destroy the tiny krill and other plankton that live near the ocean’s surface, disrupting the ocean’s food chain. Wholesale destruction of plant life, crop losses, even changes in global wind and weather patterns, could result from a weakened ozone layer. If any of these threats materialize in the coming decades, it will certainly spell trouble for man and his world.
What Hope Is There?
In September 1987 some 24 nations signed an agreement called the Montreal Protocol. It calls for the more developed nations to freeze CFC use and production at 1986 levels, while cutting back 50 percent by the year 1999. Developing nations have more leeway since CFCs are seen as crucial to modernization.
The treaty, which will take effect in 1989 if at least 11 nations ratify it, has been praised as a “landmark.” One U.S. politician exulted: “For the first time, the nations of the world agreed to cooperate on an environmental problem before there were widespread harmful effects.”
However, not everyone was so ecstatic. Some scientists were troubled that just two weeks after the Montreal accord was signed, the most conclusive proof that CFCs caused the ozone hole was released. Those who signed the treaty were even told not to consider the ozone holes in their deliberations. Said one expert: “If the Montreal negotiators had had these findings in front of them they would have agreed to a total phaseout of CFC’s.”
But worse still, the CFCs that are currently rising through the troposphere will take from seven to ten years to drift up to the stratosphere. This means that the levels of CFCs in the stratosphere will double their present levels, regardless of treaties. As reported in The German Tribune: “Even if an immediate ban were imposed the atmosphere would take 80 years to revert to the state it was in in the 1920s.”
Meanwhile, big chemical companies are working hard to find substitutes for CFCs. Some of these have already shown some promise. But testing them and figuring out how to produce them takes time. “We need them now, not tomorrow,” urges Joe Farman, the scientist who first discovered the Antarctic ozone hole. “We are putting CFCs into the atmosphere five times faster than natural processes can dispose of them.” There are good reasons not to hurry the launching of substitutes though. “Nobody wants to go with a product that will be in everyone’s kitchen and then find it is toxic,” warns a chemical company’s environmental manager.
So while hopes for a solution do exist, scientists are shaken. They have learned that the earth’s atmosphere is an enormously complex and delicate mechanism; it responds to human pollution suddenly and unpredictably.
Dr. Oppenheimer summarizes: “We’re flying blind into a highly uncertain future.” Superficial solutions to so profound a crisis draw only laughter. When a U.S. official urged a “personal protection” campaign of wearing hats and sunglasses, critics asked how to put sombreros on soybeans or sunglasses on wild animals.
It seems all too clear that only a thoroughgoing solution will gain respect or be adequate to solve the problem. Is man equal to the task of undoing his own myriad wrongs against this planet? It hardly seems so. Man is rarely willing to spend money on cleaning up his own filth until he is practically choking in it. Is it not wiser to look to the Designer of our complex environment for an answer? Clearly, he foresaw our troubled age when he promised to “bring to ruin those ruining the earth.”—Revelation 11:18.
[Box on page 25]
THE OZONE PARADOX
Ozone the lifesaving shield. Ozone the noxious pollutant. You may have heard it described both ways. Which is it? Both! In the stratosphere where it belongs, ozone is indeed a lifesaver. But down here in the troposphere, ozone is produced as a by-product of human pollution. Humans release huge amounts of hydrocarbons into the air, mostly by burning gasoline in automobiles. Sunlight acts on these hydrocarbons to produce ozone.
Humans are not meant to breathe ozone. It causes lung damage. In fact, scientists have recently realized that it is even more dangerous to human health than previously thought. Some have called out urgently for tighter restrictions on ozone pollution—to little avail.
Do you see how ironic the ozone crisis has become? Up high where ozone is needed, we destroy it. Down here where ozone is poisonous, we manufacture it!
But you may wonder: ‘Why can’t we just send the low ozone up to the stratosphere where it’s needed?’ For one thing, ozone is too unstable to make the trip; it would break down long before it reached that high. Some scientists have dreamed up fantastic schemes to transport ozone up there by blimps, jets, or missiles. They readily admit, though, that the cost would be enormous. Apparently, the only real solution is not to destroy it up above or manufacture it down below.
[Diagram on page 26]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Ozone Layer in Stratosphere