Saturday, January 9, 2010

What Ever Happened To: The Ozone Hole

This is the second look back at yesteryear's looming environmental disasters. I'll call it disaster science. You know, the disasters that were going to kill us before global warmi, er climate change. Last time it was What Ever Happened to Acid Rain?

Gen-Xers should well-remember the dire predictions about the rapidly disappearing Ozone layer in the 1970's and 1980's. We were warned of skin cancers, crop failures. Starvation. Diseases. Soylent Green snack bars.

Why did we care about ozone in the first place?

Ozone (O3) is the unstable, naturally occurring little oxygen allotrope that filters UV from the sun. Without ozone we would be dead or look something like George Hamilton (expect a lot of 1970's references here).

It concentrates in the ozone layer, up in the stratosphere, about 10 miles up. By 1978, we had a protocol, THE Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out the man-made production of ozone depleting chemicals - the chlorofluorocarbons (AKA CFCs).

The iconic image I have from that era is my mom (all moms) spraying the hell out of their hair with AquaNet hairspray. That stuff had CFC as a propellant. It would burn. And would make a hair helmet that could stop a .32 special.

Disaster science was in a fever pitch in those days. The UVA and UVB rays that were cruising through the thinning ozone layer were giving Patagonian sheep back sores and would eventually destroy all food crops. The ozone hole was big. Really big. And getting bigger.

There were even some really cool cartoon graphics (these were the pre-CG days you know) depicting the size of the ozone hole by 2000. That's right, the hole covered all of the US (except San Francisco) and another hole engulfed western Europe.

Science Fiction Meets Science Fact

I have a little theory about modern science discoveries, its in three parts. I call it the Irwin Allen Blind Spot Trap.

When we scientists observe and report something for the first time, like the ozone hole, there is a natural tendency to believe it must not have existed for long before we observed it. This is the Blind Spot part.

The other problem is that we are developing the ability to observe things at an amazing rate. Therefore we end up with some really good data over a very short periods of time. I'll call this the Double Blind Spot part. In other words, we tend to love technology, and new data from new technology inspires scientists to make long term projections using data that represents a tiny fraction of earth's history. In other words, statistically significant wild ass guesses (or SWAGs).

The last part. Any good scientific SWAGs has a disaster at the end. Just as Irwin Allen brought us Earthquake, the Towering Inferno - scientists seem compelled to run models that predict disaster. Otherwise, who would read that drudge.

Back to the ozone hole. It "appeared" over Antarctica just about the time we could measure it. And the observation caused all manner of panic. The problem with the science in the 1970's was that the annual ozone hole was first measured in 1956, long before the ozone-destroying CFCs were in common use. The hole appears at the end of the dark, cold Antarctic winter, lasts about three to five weeks, and then disappears.

In a rush to write their scripts, scientists forgot to notice this natural phenomena.

The science was quickly settled and the science text books were produced. We, the evil developed nations were killing the planet.

After we settled the science...well, we did some more science. Turns out, that the actual "ozone layer" is not some delicate, static and fragile wrapping about the outer atmosphere. Rather it is a volatile component of the atmosphere that is both created and destroyed by solar radiation.

[Side snark: Science is like that. Things we think we know (i.e. settled) turn out to be quite unsettled after a second or third look.]

That's right. Ozone creation (and destruction) is a self-limiting process, so we can not "run out" of stratospheric ozone. The more ozone (O3) is destroyed, the more free oxygen radicals (O1) are available to bind with free oxygen (O2) to create ozone (O3), the same applies with free oxygen (O2). And on and on it goes.

The Science is Re-Settled

Like OJ Simpson pulling George C Scott from a burning building during an earthquake after a plane crash with an impending dam break - the earth was saved. Was it the Montreal Protocol or previously unknown natural compensating factors? Decades down the road, it looks like it was both. But mostly natural factors.

You see, the holes never engulfed those nasty industrialized nations. And the old science said it could take a decade to get those big ole CFC molecules fully circulated. Not to mention the CFCs that were still produced in third world countries. According to the settled science, the ozone layer could not be saved until 2050. Bad science. Bad

Either way. The hysteria cooled to a concern, eventually fading to a footnote. The new science books sheepishly navigate the topic and respectable scientists don't talk about the ozone anymore.

In the end, what did this crisis bring us? I could make an argument that the ozone hole killed Elvis and brought us frustrating pump bottle hair spray. I could also argue that the ozone hole is like an ex girlfriend. Remembered but left unspoken.

Want to know more? Here are my sources.
CFC Production Yes we still use a lot of that stuff

Steven Milloy at Junk Science


Spike TV for some palate cleansing videos after all of this sciency stuff