The Ozone Hole — should we be alarmed?

In 1999, I was asked to write a Weather Matters column discussing stratospheric ozone, including the “ozone hole.” Consensus science said that ozone destruction was due largely to human-emitted chemicals, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 was awarded jointly to Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone”. Their work contributed to The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of a number of substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion.

However, there were some scientists who objected to the Montreal Protocol, saying that human-caused ozone destruction had been exaggerated. For that reason, I wrote two columns, one with the consensus view and the other from the “exaggeration” viewpoint. Wow! a firestorm ensued, directed at me. Several of my OSU colleagues confronted me angrily, demanding a retraction. One professor accused me of “manipulating” data and results. Things got very ugly.  I did publish a follow-up piece wherein I apologized for getting people upset and included the petition, signed by a number of colleagues, pointing out that “George is WRONG on this issue!”

Then, in 2007, Nature published the following brief article:

Scientific Consensus on Man-Made Ozone Hole May Be Coming Apart

As the world marks 20 years since the introduction of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, Nature has learned of experimental data that threaten to shatter established theories of ozone chemistry. If the data are right, scientists will have to rethink their understanding of how ozone holes are formed and how that relates to climate change.

Markus Rex, an atmosphere scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute of Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany, did a double-take when he saw new data for the break-down rate of a crucial molecule, dichlorine peroxide (Cl2O2). The rate of photolysis (light-activated splitting) of this molecule reported by chemists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, was extremely low in the wavelengths available in the stratosphere – almost an order of magnitude lower than the currently accepted rate.

“This must have far-reaching consequences,” Rex says. “If the measurements are correct we can basically no longer say we understand how ozone holes come into being.” What effect the results have on projections of the speed or extent of ozone depletion remains unclear.

Other groups have yet to confirm the new photolysis rate, but the conundrum is already causing much debate and uncertainty in the ozone research community. “Our understanding of chloride chemistry has really been blown apart,” says John Crowley, an ozone researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

“Until recently everything looked like it fitted nicely,” agrees Neil Harris, an atmosphere scientist who heads the European Ozone Research Coordinating Unit at the University of Cambridge, UK. “Now suddenly it’s like a plank has been pulled out of a bridge.”

Wow! Pretty big news!! But did you hear about it?

Will Happer of Princeton just published an article quoting from the Nature article and comparing the ozone hole issue with global warming. Here’s what he said on Icecap

Aug 05, 2010

The Ozone Hole Debacle from an Insider

By Will Happer

The Montreal Protocol to ban freons was the warm-up exercise for the IPCC.  Many current IPCC players gained fame then by stampeding the US Congress into supporting the Montreal Protocol. They learned to use dramatized, phony scientific claims like “ozone holes over Kennebunkport” (President Bush Sr’s seaside residence in New England). The ozone crusade also had business opportunities for firms like Dupont to market proprietary “ozone-friendly” refrigerants at much better prices than the conventional (and more easily used) freons that had long-since lost patent protection and were not a cheap commodity with little profit potential.

I was the Director of Energy Research at the US Department of Energy at the time, and I knew very well that the data to support the treaty was not there.  Ever since Dobson’s first expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900’s, we had known that ozone levels were always low over the Antarctic, but we had no real idea of what the natural fluctuations were. As far as we know, there has always been an ozone hole over Antarctica, with a size that varies from year to year.  The size of the hole has hardly changed since 1990, as you can see from NASA’s site.

I don’t know what the current status is, but two or three years ago, some researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology remeasured the rate of ozone destruction by the key chlorine oxide, and they found a number about 6 times smaller than the one promoted during the freon-ban crusade. Even the establishment value was really not big enough to cause substantial ozone depletion.  The ozone hole over Antarctica involves high-altitude “ice” particulates, made from a witch’s brew of water, nitric acid, chlorine etc. It is not clear if freon has made any difference to this.  The behavior of these ice crystals may be more determined by the stratospheric temperature and the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere, all changing with time at the poles.  At any rate, stratospheric freon and its breakdown products are steadily diminishing, but little is happening to the ozone hole.

As Director of Energy Research, I argued strongly for better measurements to be sure we understood the science well enough to support the Montreal Protocol.  I did manage to get a new network of UVB sensors deployed to measure year-to-year changes of ground-level UVB. The existing network was an embarrassment to the alarmists since it showed stable to decreasing UVB levels.  I thought that this might be analogous to the urban heat island problems that so vex ground-based temperature measurements.  Suburbs had grown up around the old network, so there was the possibility that air pollution was increasingly attenuating UVB. The new DOE network had real rural sites, as far as possible from urban smog.  These activities really infuriated Al Gore, who had me fired as soon as possible after becoming Vice President.

The Montreal Protocol may not have been necessary to save the ozone, but it had limited economic damage. It has caused much more damage in the way it has corrupted science. It showed how quickly a scientist or activist can gain fame and fortune by purporting to save planet earth.  We have the same situation with CO2 now, but CO2 is completely natural, unlike freons. Planet earth is quite happy to have lots more CO2 than current values, as the geological record clearly shows.  If the jihad against CO2 succeeds, there will be enormous economic damage, and even worse consequences for human liberty at the hands of the successful jihadists.

Feel free to weigh in on this issue.


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2 Responses to The Ozone Hole — should we be alarmed?

  1. I think over time scientist will be surprised by what they thought they knew and are finding out they were wrong. You got to love creation, always full of surprises.

  2. Foster Jackson says:

    Real science advances by questioning and challenging the consensus, which inherently opposses and discourages dissent. Committees and voting bodies can’t think critically. Only individuals can think and thus only individuals can advance science.

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