The Heat Is On

Chemical wastes spewed into the air threaten the earth's climate

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At this time of year, the Cabo de Hornos Hotel in Punta Arenas (pop. 100,000) is ordinarily filled with tourists who spend their days browsing in the local tax-free shops or mounting expeditions into the rugged, mountainous countryside just out of town. But the 120 mostly American scientists and technicians who converged on Chile's southernmost city for most of August and September ignored advertisements for hunting, hiking and ski tours. Instead, each day they scanned the bulletin board in the hotel lobby for the latest information on a different sort of venture.

Thirteen times during their eight-week stay, a specially outfitted DC-8 took off from the Presidente Ibanez Airport, twelve miles northeast of Punta Arenas. Often the 40-odd scientists and support crew listed for a given flight had to leave the hotel soon after midnight to prepare the plane and its research instruments. Once airborne, the DC-8 would bank south toward Antarctica, 1,000 miles away, fighting vicious winds before settling into a twelve-hour round-trip flight at altitudes of up to 40,000 ft. Along the way, the instruments continuously collected data on atmospheric gases, airborne particles and solar radiation high above the frozen continent. Meantime, parallel flights took off from Ibanez to gather additional atmospheric data at nearly twice the altitude. Manned by a lone pilot, a Lockheed ER-2, the research version of the high-altitude U-2 spy plane, made twelve sorties into the lower stratosphere, cruising at nearly 70,000 ft., or more than 13 miles, for six hours at a time.

Both aircraft were part of an unprecedented, $10 million scientific mission carried out by the U.S. under the combined sponsorship of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Chemical Manufacturers Association. The purpose: to find out why the layer of ozone gas in the upper atmosphere, which protects the earth's surface from lethal solar ultraviolet radiation, was badly depleted over Antarctica. The scale of the mission reflected an intensifying push to understand the detailed dynamics of potentially disastrous changes in the climate. The danger of ozone depletion is only part of the problem; scientists are also concerned about the "greenhouse effect," a long-term warming of the planet caused by chemical changes in the atmosphere.

The threat to the ozone was first discovered in 1983, when scientists with the British Antarctic Survey made the startling observation that concentrations of ozone in the stratosphere were dropping at a dramatic rate over Antarctica each austral spring, only to gradually become replenished by the end of November. At first they speculated that the phenomenon might be the result of increased sunspot activity or the unusual weather systems of the Antarctic. It is now widely accepted that winds are partly responsible, but scientists are increasingly convinced that there is a more disturbing factor at work. The culprit: a group of man-made chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are used, among other things, as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners, for making plastic foams, and as cleaning solvents for microelectronic circuitry. Mounting evidence has demonstrated that under certain conditions these compounds, rising from earth high into the stratosphere, set off chemical reactions that rapidly destroy ozone.

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