Hole Opening up in the Ozone Layer Over the Arctic

I hear the world was supposed to have ended this past May 21, according to some true believers. Since that date has apparently passed without anything especially apocalyptical happening, the crucial date has since been amended to Dec. 21, 2012.

I don’t think I’ll bet the farm on that prophecy. But far be it from me to mock anyone’s unscientific predictions about when the world will end, or life on earth as we know it.

Put up against that great unknown one might call the wisdom of the universe, our human science is still a puny thing. We struggle to unravel and understand cosmic mysteries, to gather whatever evidence we can with our little telescopes and such, and draw conclusions. It’s a little better than pinning the tail on the donkey. But more often than not we learn too late that our great scientific discoveries maybe do more harm than good. Sometimes, whether most of us realize it or not, it’s more scientists trying to figure out how to save the world from an “end-of-the-world” scenario that ironically earlier scientists helped put into play.

If there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that, once out of the bottle, the proverbial Genie is hard for them to put back in, if that’s at all possible. We’d better hope so anyway.

Not that long ago it looked like scientists had maybe, just maybe helped the world dodge an end-of-world bullet heading our way. In the 1980s scientists discovered with the help of orbiting satellites that the high-altitude ozone layer around the Earth was starting to be depleted to the extent that a seasonal “hole” was opening up over Antarctica. That was big news at the time because science knew by then that the ozone layer in the Earth’s stratosphere, the upper layer of the atmosphere, was crucial to life on Earth. That’s because it filtered out most of the sun’s deadly ultraviolet radiation. In other words, no ozone layer, no life on earth.

Spurred on by intense news media attention and public alarm, scientific research went into high gear. Within a few years it determined the culprit upsetting the delicate balance of the ozone layer was man-made, in the form mostly of chlorine and bromine found in such things as chlorofluorocarbon compounds. Starting in the 1930s they were used in ever-greater amounts for a wide variety of uses in homes and industry in the developed world, including refrigeration and aerosol spray cans. Chlorine and bromine atoms were reaching the stratosphere and destroying ozone at a phenomenal rate. An international agreement, the Montreal Protocol , calling for a ban on the use of most ozone-damaging compounds by the year 2000 was first signed in 1987.

A few years ago the continuous monitoring of the ozone layer showed that there were signs the rate of depletion was beginning to slow down. It was still a big problem. Lots of things on Earth must still be emitting chlorofluorocarbons and the like, and chlorine in the atmosphere can take as long as 100 years to break down. Still things were at last looking a little hopeful on the save-the-ozone-layer front.

But the news that broke this past weekend about a hole opening up in the ozone layer over the Arctic this past winter and spring was disturbing. It was “unprecedented,” said the many scientists who authored a report about it that appeared in the on-line scientific journal Nature. Among them was David Tarasick, an Environment Canada scientist who was not allowed by Canada’s governing Conservative government to talk to the news media about the report.

Meanwhile, it was coincidentally revealed that budget cuts at Environment Canada will include this country’s ozone layer monitoring program. Other authors of the report have said that program was, and remains, crucial.

The scientists readily admit they’re not sure why the hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic happened this past winter. They’re not sure if and to what extent it might happen again. The affected area eventually included parts of northern Norway and Russia, as well as the Canadian Arctic, raising fears about increased incidences of skin cancer and other life-threatening effects. The scientists know the stratosphere above the Arctic was colder than usual, though still not as cold as over Antarctica. Intense cold helps chlorine break down ozone. Strangely enough, that may be connected to global warming, specifically the warming of the arctic at ground level. But that link is still not clear. It needs further study.

This much is clear enough: The continued depletion of the ozone layer, and now this sudden hole in it over the Arctic is an “end of the world” event in the making. Science needs all the help it can get to figure out what’s happening. For the sake of us all it needs more, not less, resources.

The Harper government already has its head in the sand on global warming. It’s fashionable now in neo-conservative circles to mock scientists and their findings, to seize on anything to discredit them when it comes to global warming especially. But what the scientists are saying about the ozone layer, especially their latest, shocking finding, must be taken seriously, and fast.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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