Ozone Hole over Baltimore?

February 05, 1992

There is bad news in the air: NASA scientists have found the highest-ever levels of ozone-destroying chemicals over the Northern Hemisphere, building up much faster than expected. These scientists were so worried by their findings that they released preliminary results before all the data is in and analyzed. And while NASA's Michael J. Kurylo said scientists are "trying to avoid calling the problems in the northern hemisphere an ozone hole," it now appears that this could happen sooner rather than later.

If that seems scary, it ought to. The 120 scientists scientists, working out of six universities, NASA and two national laboratories, have used the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, balloon observations and converted spy-plane flights to get alarming results: 60 times the normal measurements of chlorine oxide over major cities in Northern Europe and Asia. Over U.S. cities, the chemical, both harbinger and agent of the destruction of ozone, was 15 times the normal concentration.

What is happening is that pollutants, primarily chlorofluorocarbons and halons -- chemicals containing bromine -- are percolating up through the atmosphere at an accelerating rate even as humans on the ground debate phasing them out. The eruption of Mount Pintaubo in the Philippines, a natural disaster, has exacerbated the problem. The volcano has dumped unexpected concentrations of sulfur oxides into the mix, scrubbing out oxides of nitrogen that normally act to protect against the stripping of the ozone layer.

The combination is devastating to the Earth's main line of defense against poisoning from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. The Southern Hemisphere ozone hole, discovered five years ago, thins the protective ozone concentration by 50 to 60 percent, causing daily warnings from Australia's government about the hazards of skin cancer. NASA's researchers now say we can expect the Northern Hemisphere's ozone to thin out by 20 percent or even 40 percent, depending on weather conditions over the next several months.

What that would mean for agriculture, as well as for people, could be far-reaching. Ditto for aquatic life in the sensitive layers just below the surface of major waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay and in the oceans, which produce so much of the world's food.

The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, aims to end CFC production by the year 2000, but the new results mandate a speed-up. Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore has proposed tightening restrictions on ozone-destroying chemicals now and denounced the Bush administration's foot-dragging. Partisan politics aside, this NASA report means that the time for debating this issue is over. Now is the time for action.

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