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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
October 10, 1998

Ozone Holes

It must be true. It was on the TV.


In a panel discussion I was on at a convention recently, the topic somehow got around to junk science that the public is being force-fed these days, with the ozone depletion scare cited as an example. A young man in the audience--highly articulate and obviously conversant with the details of the claims, as if that were enough to settle the issue--was astounded. "What's there to question?" he wanted to know. "There isn't any doubt left about it now."

"How so?" one of the other panelists asked.

"They're finding it up there." He meant CFC molecules in the stratosphere--or signatures attributed to CFC molecules. (Back in the DDT scare days, the massive readings reported in the Antarctic turned out to be contaminants from tubing used in the sampling equipment.) Appealing gesture to the room. Incredulous shaking of the head.

And that was it. In other words, the mere presence of traces of a molecule is equated to proof that disruption of the ozone layer has been occurring. But despite all the hype and hysteria, this has never been shown to be the case. The guilt of the accused is presumed, but there is no good evidence that the crime he's charged with even happened.

The July 1993 edition of Omni magazine carried an article of mine called "Ozone Politics: They Call this Science?" questioning the whole issue (I'll send the full text to anyone interested). Although that's a few years back now, I haven't seen any reason to change fundamentally anything I said then. Here are some of the problems with the standard line that "everyone knows,".

  • Ozone isn't in finite supply. It's produced all the time from oxygen by the UV-C component of sunshine, which penetrates down to between 30 and 17 km. altitude depending on intensity before being used up. If all the ozone were to magically disappear, 17 to 30 km. of oxygen-rich lower atmosphere would still be available as a resource to recreate it
  • Heavy CFC molecules don't rise in significant amounts to where UV-C photons can break them up. Finding traces doesn't mean very much in itself when one takes into account the incredible sensitivity of modern analytical instruments. (Things are being banned on the basis of alleged contaminants that weren't even detectable 15 years ago.) People who work with CFCs say that when freon leaks, the place you find it is right on the ground underneath. At 30 km. CFCs decline to 2% the surface value, which isn't much to begin with. About 2% of UV-C photons penetrate this deeply. Hence, the number of encounters is tiny for the same reason there aren't many marriages between Eskimos and Australian aborigines.
  • For each UV photon that does make it, there are 136 million oxygen molecules to collide with for each CFC. Each such reaction will produce two free oxygen atoms, (eventually) creating ozone, not destroying it.
  • Even if serious ozone destruction by chlorine were credible, there is nothing that links stratospheric chlorine with human activities. All chlorine atoms are alike. The diagram shows how the various sources of atmospheric chlorine compare in quantity. Reports of high chlorine levels in the Antarctic in the '80s neglected to mention that the measuring station at McMurdo Sound is 15 kilometeres downwind from Mt. Erebus, an active volcano normally venting 100-200 tons of chlorine per day, which in 1983 averaged 1000 tons per day.
  • The so-called "hole," claimed to have been discovered in the 80s, has been reported in the scientific literature since the International Geophysical Year, 1956, before CFCs were in widespread use. It is a natural annual phenomenon that varies in location and size. Basically, the polar jet stream forms a vortex inside which ozone depletion continues through the Antarctic winter but can't be replenished due to the absence of sunshine and the inability of new ozone from lower latitudes to penetrate the vortex. By the end of winter, the UV flux at the surface is about the same as that in North Dakota in July.
  • It's true that total ozone declined 5% between 1975 and 1986. And from 1964 to 1975 it had increased 5.5%, correlating closely with the sunspot cycle. Below are the actual data, with a clear reversal upward again in 1986. (Source: "Global average ozone change from Novemner 1978 to May 1990," J.R. Herman and others, Journal of Geophysical Research Vol. 96, pp.17, 29717, 305, September 20, 1991.)
  • Measured Total Ozone

    The figure for 200,000 excess cancer deaths that the EPA trumpeted in the early nineties was based on ignoring the reversal and extrapolating the 1975-1986 trend forward 40 years. Neat eh? By the same logic, the mean temperature trend of New York from January to July would show the city bursting into flames forty years from now.

  • The whole doomsday case boiled down to saying that if something wasn't done to curb CFCs, UV intensity would increase 10% in the next 20 years. So what? From poles to equator it increases naturally by 5,000% (factor of 50) anyway, and 25% from summer to winter. Moving home from New York to Philadelphia will get you the same increase in exposure as the worst-case depletion scenario.
  • And what makes all the theoretical arguments and models irrelevant in any case, the measured surface value of UV hasn't been increasing (so forget the stories about blind sheep and the like that were supposed to be effects of it). 8 U.S. ground stations showed UV decreasing 0.5 to 1.1% over 15 years prior to the late 80s. The response? Presentation of these findings at scientific conferences was blocked and the ground stations shut down.

So why are a lot of scientists not coming out and saying what they know? From what I've heard, in many cases to safeguard careers and funding. The Environmentalist religion seeking to deindustrializing the USA by any means available has been searching for decades for a credible candidate to build an ozone scare around (remember the SST?), and is solidly entrenched in the current political administration and its regulatory agencies.

The immediate goal also happens to coincide with interests that environmentalists are supposed to oppose. Four companies control 80% of the world CFC business. Patents on CFCs have run out, and they've been hemorrhaging market share to rapidly growing chemicals industries in the Third World. Only one replacement far more costly and hazardous is in sight. One of the four owns it and has patent-sharing agreements with the others. Enforcing politically what they are unable to achieve commercially will reestablish monopoly privileges for a further 17 years.

A good overview of the science that you hear much about from the media, along with a look into the murky political background, is given in THE HOLES IN THE OZONE SCARE: SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE THAT THE SKY ISN'T FALLING by Rogelio A. Maduro and Ralf Schauerhammer (original edition 1992, ISBN 0-9628134-0-0), available from 21st Century Science Associates, P.O.B. 16285, Washington, D.C. 20014. Tel: 703-777- 7473

Note added February 10, 2001

Rob Racansky sent the following from Scientific American.

A Salty Recipe for Ozone Destruction

Each spring, after several dark winter months, the sun begins to rise over the Arctic. At around the same time, the local surface-level ozone begins to decline. Researchers have long suspected that two chemical elements, bromine and chlorine, touch off this ozone destruction, but the source of these chemicals remained unknown. Now new research, reported Friday in the journal Science, reveals that they likely come from sea salt. The findings thus indicate that complex interactions among the sun, sea salt and snow are naturally depleting the near-surface ozone in the Arctic. . . .

But since nobody's patents on sea salt have expired and calls for banning it aren't in the realm of the truly practicable, don't expect to read much about it in the mass press.

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