What does it mean to redefine one's relationship to the sky? What will it do to our children's outlook on life if we have to teach them to be afraid to look up?
-- Senator Al Gore, Earth in the Balance
The world now knows that danger is shining through the sky. The evidence is overwhelming that the earth's stratospheric ozone layer -- our shield against the sun's hazardous ultraviolet rays -- is being eaten away by man-made chemicals far faster than any scientist had predicted. No longer is the threat just to our future; the threat is here and now. Ground zero is not just the South Pole anymore; ozone holes could soon open over heavily populated regions in the northern hemisphere as well as the southern. This unprecedented assault on the planet's life-support system could have horrendous long-term effects on human health, animal life, the plants that support the food chain and just about every other strand that makes up the delicate web of nature. And it is too late to prevent the damage, which will worsen for years to come. The best the world can hope for is to stabilize ozone loss soon after the turn of the century.
/ If any doubters remain, their ranks dwindled last week. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, along with scientists from several institutions, announced startling findings from atmospheric studies done by a modified spyplane and an orbiting satellite. As the two craft crossed the northern skies last month, they discovered record-high concentrations of chlorine monoxide (ClO), a chemical by-product of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) known to be the chief agents of ozone destruction.
Although the results were preliminary, they were so disturbing that NASA went public a month earlier than planned, well before the investigation could be completed. Previous studies had already shown that ozone levels have declined 4% to 8% over the northern hemisphere in the past decade. But the latest data imply that the ozone layer over some regions, including the northernmost parts of the U.S., Canada, Europe and Russia, could be temporarily depleted in the late winter and early spring by as much as 40%. That would be almost as bad as the 50% ozone loss recorded over Antarctica. If a huge northern ozone hole does not in fact open up in 1992, it could easily do so a year or two later. Says Michael Kurylo, NASA's manager of upper- atmosphere research: "Everybody should be alarmed about this. It's far worse than we thought."
And not easy to fix because CFCs are ubiquitous in almost every society. They are used in refrigeration and air conditioning, as cleaning solvents in factories and as blowing agents to create certain kinds of plastic foam. In many countries CFCs are still spewed into the air as part of aerosol sprays.
Soon after the ozone hole over Antarctica was confirmed in 1985, many of the world's governments reached an unusually rapid consensus that action had to be taken. In 1987 they crafted the landmark Montreal Protocol, which called for a 50% reduction in CFC production by 1999. Three years later, as signs of ozone loss mounted, international delegates met again in London and agreed to a total phaseout of CFCs by the year 2000. That much time was considered necessary to give CFC manufacturers a chance to develop substitute chemicals that do not wipe out ozone.