Remembering Nobelist Sherry Rowland, ‘Who Sounded Alarm On Thinning Ozone Layer’

The death of the legendary Nobel prize-winning chemist F. Sherwood Rowland reminds us of the value of “alarmism” and the scientific duty to speak out in the face of impending disaster.

As UC Irvine physical sciences dean Kenneth C. Janda wrote in an e-mail to faculty Sunday:

“He saved the world from a major catastrophe: never wavering in his commitment to science, truth and humanity, and did so with integrity and grace.”

Rowland is one of the true scientific heroes of our time — both for his research and for what he did with it:

Nearly 40 years ago, Rowland and post-doctoral student Mario Molina made a shocking discovery: a single chlorine atom byproduct from aerosol hair sprays, deodorants and other popular consumer products could chew up 100,000 ozone atoms in the stratosphere. The stratospheric ozone layer, 12 to 30 miles above Earth, protects life on the planet from harsh solar radiation.

“Mario and I realized this was not just a scientific question, but a potentially grave environmental problem involving substantial depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer,” Rowland said later. “Entire biological systems, including humans, would be at danger from ultra-violet rays.”

They decided they had to advocate for a ban on consumer products that were earning billions annually. Industry representatives fought back: At one point Aerosol Age, a trade journal, speculated that Rowland was a member of the Soviet Union’s KGB, out to destroy capitalism. Even some fellow scientists grumbled that he was going overboard with a hypothesis.

Sound familiar?

Of course, even in the face of industry attacks, we lived in a different political time and within just a few years of Rowland’s finding, many US aerosol spray-can manufacturers reformulated their product and the federal government put in place a ban for ozone-destroying gases in spray cans. Eventually, a hole in the ozone layer was discovered and the world (including the Reagan Administration) agreed to mandate sharp cuts in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) use — a mandate that drove the “crucial technological advances” needed to address the problem.

The Nobel Committee noted in 1995, “It was to turn out that they had even underestimated the risk.”

By 2008, Rowland was warning that given humanity’s apparent inaction on climate, “his best guess for the peak concentration of carbon dioxide” was a staggering “1,000 parts per million.” That would be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions and the end of modern civilization as we know it today, according to the recent scientific literature.

While many in the mainstream media pooh-pooh or ignore scientists like Rowland who have been warning of the climate crisis today — even as the right-wing media and fossil fuel industry continue their assault on the science and the scientists — it was good to see even the Washington Post today acknowledge the value of sounding the alarm:

Nobel winner F. Sherwood Rowland, who sounded alarm on thinning ozone layer, dies at 84

… Molina said his former mentor never shied from defending his work or advocating a ban on CFC.

“He showed me that if we believe in the science … we should speak out when we feel it’s important for society to change,” Molina told the Associated Press.

Rowland felt it was his duty to speak out on ozone depletion and then on climate change — and his words on the subject are a clarion call for action by climate scientists, indeed, by all of us:

Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn’t it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?” Rowland said at a White House climate change roundtable in 1997. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

5 Responses to Remembering Nobelist Sherry Rowland, ‘Who Sounded Alarm On Thinning Ozone Layer’

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Just found this article form “1988” on methane/water vapor in the stratosphere and ozone depletion/global wariming..

    UCI Study Shows Big Rise in Atmospheric Methane

    “We’re changing the atmosphere in a rather rapid way. It’s hard to tell what the eventual consequences will be, but there are several ways it may have a strong impact on man,” said Rowland, who was part of the research team that first postulated a threat to the ozone layer more than a decade ago.

    The study by Rowland and UCI chemist Donald R. Blake, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also suggests that the atmospheric methane could aggravate global warming by the “greenhouse effect” but that the rate of increase of the gas slowed slightly during the last five years.

    Origin of Most Methane

    Methane is the major component of natural gas, but about 80% of atmospheric methane comes from decomposition in rice paddies, swamps and the guts of cows, with some contribution from wood digestion in termites, Rowland said.

    People are responsible for increased methane levels because they are raising more cows and growing more rice than ever and chopping down tropical forests, which provides food for more termites, said atmospheric scientist Pat Zimmerman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

    Ozone is an air pollutant at low altitudes, but in the stratosphere it shields Earth’s surface from harmful solar ultraviolet radiation. Scientists say reduction of the ozone layer will cause more skin cancers and may trigger climate changes.

    Researchers generally agree that by trapping solar heat like glass in a greenhouse, methane, carbon dioxide and other pollutants will probably warm Earth’s lower atmosphere by 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2050.

    Sea Levels Could Rise

    They fear that this may cause crop-threatening droughts and partially melt polar ice caps, which could raise sea levels by up to 15 feet and threaten coastal cities.

    Rowland and Blake also said that because increases in atmospheric methane reduce the amount of hydroxyl present, the atmosphere is losing its ability to cleanse itself of other pollutants. Hydroxyl reacts with many pollutants and removes them from the atmosphere.

    Blake and Rowland collected air samples regularly from January, 1978, to September, 1987, at up to 60 locations around the Pacific to measure methane levels.

    Earlier studies suggested that methane levels more than doubled during the previous 200 years. Blake and Rowland calculated that methane increases may have raised the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere by 28% since the 1940s and by 45% over the last two centuries.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Later “2001”

    Reaction of Ozone and Climate to Increasing Stratospheric Water Vapor
    By Drew Shindell — May 2001

    Water vapor breaks down in the stratosphere, releasing reactive hydrogen oxide molecules that destroy ozone. These molecules also react with chlorine containing gases, converting them into forms that destroy ozone as well. So a wetter stratosphere will have less ozone.

    Observations of ozone show a thinning of the Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer by about 3 to 8% overall since the 1970s. In the upper stratosphere, ozone depletion has been from 15 to 20%. Again, the model is better able to reproduce these values when increased water vapor is included. This is especially true in the upper stratosphere, where ozone is most sensitive to water. The model indicates that increased water vapor accounts for about 40% of the ozone loss in the upper stratosphere, and about 20% of the overall loss to date.

    There are two driving forces behind the change in stratospheric moisture. Increasing emissions of methane are transformed into water in the stratosphere by chemical reactions. This can account for about a third of the observed increase in moisture there.

  3. Solar Jim says:

    Stratospheric ozone destruction from CFC, HCFC, methane, natural gas, etc., especially at both poles, would seem likely to allow greater ice sheet melt from direct impact of the ultraviolet part of the sun’s radiant spectrum.

    In addition to the expected elevated temperatures at high latitudes from global warming by manmade gas, this may help explain observed accelerating ice melt.

    We should all be thankful for the life of the great scientist and citizen, Professor Sherwood Rowland. May his life serve as an example for climate scientists to act as world citizens when their research morally requires them to do so.

  4. David Lewis says:

    The main reason action became possible was because the ozone hole over Antarctica was discovered.

    It hit the scientific community like a ton of bricks. All the models had left out equations describing a particularly relevant chemistry that happens only if there is ice in the stratosphere. There wasn’t supposed to be ice in the stratosphere. So if all the models were roughly correct and ice was not in the stratosphere, civilization could most probably exist and increase emissions for another generation and the planetary system would probably still be viable.

    The mindset that there should be no damage observable in the early 1980s was so widespread NASA processed satellite data in a way that discarded “abnormally low” ozone readings because they must be due to error, before presenting analysis to humans. The British Antarctic Survey was on the ground measuring ozone (Joe Farman) and they hesitated for years to announce that their ground instruments told them there was an incredible loss of ozone happening each spring, because they knew NASA was measuring from space and NASA wasn’t saying anything.

    Farman delays for years, including going back to the UK to order new instruments he is so concerned his result be accurate before he publishes. Finally he publishes. NASA had the archived data, they processed it differently without discarding the “not possible” data, and they’ve now got a picture of an ozone hole appearing each spring tending to increase in size each year and it is alarming. NASA now flies right into the ozone hole to prove what is happening. There isn’t any ozone at some levels. There’s something happening there that allows the full power of what is already in the atmosphere to remove ozone. It dawns on everyone there were unusual cloud formations over Antarctica that were noticed right away by the first explorers, but those guys didn’t know any ozone modellers. Those clouds were ice in the stratosphere. If you put the equations that describe the chemistry if ice is there into the models, as Cl and Br concentration accumulates generally with increasing emissions, (Cl is 3X natural by then) in this coldest place on earth the last bit of water in the stratosphere freezes out to form ice crystals, anyway poof, no ozone. Half was gone over an area the size of a continent. Rowland started saying you could see this from Mars.

    So its a gigantic surprise to a scientific community that thought it understood something about what was going on. Rowland was the least complacent – he was wandering around saying what was known was alarming before the ozone hole appeared, saying some of his fellow scientists appeared to be too comfortable in their industry paid for labs. His public statements were the most alarmist. So the precedent is the most alarmist scientist proved to have had a huge underestimate of how bad and how soon.

    It was also the first planetary scale damage certified to have been caused by the wastes of civilization. It hit the mainstream culture. The Hopi appeared outside the UN with their famous the end is near pronouncement a short time after the NASA flight into the hole. People could feel the shock even if they had no scientific knowledge. Du Pont had to announce that proof their products were bad for the planet had been found and the company would now develop substitutes, and they had to live up to it. (A famous Du Pont ad in the 1970s was if proof was ever found, why…)

    The right wing was not an anti science and anti environment monolith at the time. There was industry resistance that although it couldn’t stop the spray bomb ban in the 1970s, soon they were on their feet and were effective enough so that the fastest increasing use was foam hamburger containers and action was delayed until the confirmation of what caused the ozone hole in 1986 I think it was. Right wing morons like Hodel said who cares if the ozone layer goes, people should wear sunglasses and hats. Biologists had pointed out that life on land had not evolved until ozone appeared to shield that life from UV. Believe it or not, Reagan stands out as representative of another type of right winger who are invisible now but who are sorely needed now.

    In chief US ozone negotiator Benedick’s words: “In June 1987, with the final negotiating session at Montreal less than three months away, I was at the Reichstag in Berlin to deliver an address on the fortieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan when a breathless U.S. Embassy attaché brought me an “Eyes Only” personal cable from the White House. President Reagan thus became the world’s first head of state to personally approve a national negotiating policy on ozone protection. Ignoring the advice of some of his closest political friends, the President completely endorsed, point-by-point, the strong position of the State Department and EPA”

    Anyway, I remember Rowland. I was some clown living in a rural area of Canada who tuned in like the Hopi did, just by picking up on the scientific hysteria from very far outside their circle. I wrote a paper about what I understood about what was happening and sent it to Rowland. He had time for anyone. He called me up out of the blue.

    I thought I could feel a horror in him, like there was in me. I thought it must be like that if you are the guy who first realizes a planetary catastrophe is about to occur and you need to communicate what you’ve discovered to a lot of other people quickly. I guess a lot of people feel like this.

    He chose a very effective way to communicate to people and succeeded. No one should think it was easy back then. The decisive thing was the sudden shock of the ozone hole.

    A fridge contained about $1 worth of CFC. Replacements cost $4. That sort of sums it up. It cost industries billions worldwide to retool but compared to what it would take to stabilize the GHG concentration the cost was trivial. That fact made the politics different as well.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    Except that O3 – ozone – is a greenhouse gas, so destroying ozone counteracts the warming in the poles slightly.

    THe main facts remain:

    Rowland was a hero.
    AGW is a huge problem.
    Clean energy is the solution that solves several problems.