Letter From The End or the World: Ultraviolet Crisis Worsens

by Jim Scanlon

(Coastal Post, December 1, 1997)

Over the past two years the Springtime Antarctic Ozone Hole has not been

as large, or as deep as it was during the two previous years, nevertheless

levels of stratospheric ozone over the Southern Hemisphere have been

worse. Previously the Ozone Hole only reached the tip of South America

once or twice during the month of October for a few days, this year it

passed over populated areas of Argentina and Chile September 13 and 14,

October 12-15, October 31 to November 5 and again from November 10-13

reaching as far north as the city of Comodoro Rivadávia. (Ozone levels over

the Arctic, while not as low as over Antarctica , have been very low for

the last two winter-spring seasons.)

The number of days of very low ozone/high ultraviolet radiation over the

southern half of the earth are growing in an, as yet, unexplained way.

Exposure later in November is particularly worrisome because the Ozone

Hole has previously broken up by this time, when the sun is higher and

it's rays stronger.

In a telephone conversation with the Coastal Post, Dr Rumen Bojkov of the

World Meteorological Organization, confirmed that ozone is down and

ultraviolet us up throughout the Southern Hemisphere with a record low of

166 Dobson Units being measured over the city of Ushuaia, Argentina in

early November.

As regular readers are aware, due to editor Don Dean's obsession with

verifying the environmental effects of ozone depletion, The Coastal Post

reported from Patagonia, Bolivia and Peru on this subject every year since

1990 with the exception of 1993. Over the years, consciousness of, and

sensitivity to, the increased skin burning powers of the sun have increased

greatly. This process has accelerated over the past two years as more and

more children and unwary adults have suffered sunburns. Other environmental

effects are less obvious, but are certainly there although no one sees to

be looking very hard where people live and if they are finding anything,

they are not publishing.

I traveled by coastal ferry from Puerto Montt through the quiet waterways

between uninhabited coastal islands to Chilean Patagonia from October 12

to the 16th. I had with me a Microtops II, a hand held precision instrument

for measuring stratospheric ozone. This triumph of miniaturization, which

easily fit into a jacket pocket, connects to a small Global Position

Satellite receiver and gives accurate measurements as long as there is

even a faint image of the sun shining through the clouds.

On October 14th and 15, although I didn't know it at that time, I caught

the edge of the Ozone Hole passing over South America at 45 and 48 degrees

south. I didn't need an instrument to tell me something was different about

the sun's rays-my skin told me. This is what I had felt and heard

repeatedly since 1990! Despite the cool temperature, about 50 degrees

Fahrenheit, and the late time of day when the sky cleared of clouds, the

sun's rays were very warm and penetrating. This unusual situation made many

people on the boat uncomfortable and I was questioned repeatedly by other

passengers who watched me with my pocket scientific observatory

What was different was that now my experience was being broken down and

documented in terms of milliwatts per centimeter squared and stored

digitally. This data has been given free to those who can use it, and is

being analyzed by Forrest Mims III, the inventor, and the Solar Light

Company of Philadelphia, the manufacturer.

Arriving in Puerto Natales, where I suffered a kind of snow blindness (with

no snow around) in 1990 from a previous encounter with high levels of

ultraviolet radiation, I found the town looking good, but unfortunately, my

favorite hotel had burned to the ground.

Moving to Punta Arenas, a wonderful, small city a few hundred kilometers to

the south on the Strait of Magellan, a cab driver told me that there had

been an oil spill in Ultima Esperanza near Monte Aymond and that eleven

clean up workers had been taken to the hospital with sunburns-something

unusual in this cold, windy land.

With my portable Microtops and the GPS, it was easy to take measurements of

the sun's rays while doing other things. I learned that the eleven workers

had suffered "class A" sunburns on their faces and hands and were treated

on the 14, 15 and 16th of October. However when I spoke to the Director of

the Department For Prevention of Risks of the state owned oil company, I

was told that the dermatitis suffered by the workers had nothing to do with

ozone or ultraviolet, although he acknowledged it was a new problem. In

1990 I was given a pamphlet by this same oil company denying that ozone

depletion was a reality. I asked the Director if he thought that sunlight

had changed, and he reflected for a few seconds and said: "I'm from this

place and yes, you can tell that the sun is different now"

Because people know me from previous visits to Punta Arenas, and know of my

interest in ultraviolet radiation, I was invited to appear on a morning

radio program for an interview, and also to two locally produced television

programs. The local newspaper, La Prensa Austral published an article about

my interest in the environmental effects of ozone depletion.

The editor of this excellent newspaper expressed frustration that he

wanted, but could not get, advanced information about when the Ozone Hole

would pass over the city, and the region. I made the point that I always

make-that the Ozone Hole was special and tended to distract everyone

everywhere from the problem of global ozone depletion. That what was needed

was to forget about "ozone" and think "ultraviolet"! Your skin tells you

about ultraviolet, big science tells you about "ozone". Many factors

(including ozone in the stratosphere and troposphere) add up to the amount

of ultraviolet that reached living things, but ultraviolet was the sum, the

product, the end result, the bottom line! Why not measure ultraviolet?

All during my stay on the Strait of Magellan, I regularly reported my

measurements and I believe this led to a greater sharing of information

from the local Chilean scientists working with very sophisticated equipment

belonging to the Brazilian Institute of Space Research. My Microtops

however, produced consistently lower numbers than those officially

released. My measurements from October 31 through November 2, showed

ozone levels sufficiently low to conclude that the Ozone Hole was overhead.

I thought that maybe my instrument was broken until it was announced that

indeed the Ozone Hole had been over the region for three days including

Sunday November 2, when the skies were clear and the sun was very hot.

The sun also shone bright and hot on November 3, and the 4th when I left. I

had postponed my leaving twice and had to go. The 4th was very hot , almost

70 degrees Fahrenheit, and everyone I spoke to was uneasy about the intense

rays. I had seen two men on Sunday with badly sun burned faces and hands.

One I didn't get a chance to speak to, the other wouldn't speak to me other

than to say he was Australian and he had sat in the for about two hours

that afternoon. Just my luck. This was the first Australian I had ever met

who wasn't talkative! I thought later he might not have been feeling well.

Every tourist I spoke to remarked on getting a slight burn and spoke of

others who had gotten serious burns. An office clerk remarked that she had

used sunblock with SPF 30 on her six year old daughter that Sunday and

after playing in the park with her grandmother, her child had a reddened

face. She wanted to know what SPF she should use. A friend told me his

daughter's kindergarten class all had reddened faces. The director of the

local radio station said, "Ten years ago no one here ever got a sun burn."

A horse trader from the Falkland Islands with whom I struck up and

acquaintance had also asked me a few days before what sunblock to use and I

had given him a small bottle of "Long's SPF 30" He stopped me in the

street and jokingly showed me his bald head which was very red. " It didn't

work". I reminded him I told him to wear a hat.

In Santiago I was amazed to notice no one knew of the environmental crisis

going on in the South. I spoke to people coming from Argentina-nothing!

There was one article about Punta Arenas about paving the streets.

But everyone I spoke to became immediately alert if I mentioned

ultraviolet. They seemed to stand more erect, or sit up straighter and

became eager to help.

I had no trouble tracking down a Dermatologist whose name had appeared in

an article about skin problems from exposure to the sun two years before.

She immediately fit me in to here busy schedule at a large hospital

operated by the Catholic University.

"No, there are no objective studies" she said. "I am not a research

scientist. I am a clinician and I only know what comes through my doors. I

see more people coming in with burns. Most people with burns do not go to

the hospital. I see people with dark skins coming in. And suddenly we seem

to be getting young people with skin cancers that usually show up only in

very old people. Right here in Santiago!".

The University of Chile actually ordered a car and driver to take me to an

appointment with the only Professor of Dermatology in the country. He said

that he was convinced that something was happening and that increasing

ultraviolet radiation was real, but he said that his statistics, so far, do

not support an increase in any kind of skin cancers. "As a doctor I would

like to prevent this from happening", he said.

He organized, operates and pays for the skin cancer survey with his own

money, without any help from the University, the government or any other

agency. Doctors reporting from ten locations in Chile also receive no

assistance from anyone. So all support comes totally from patient fees to

their doctors! He said he could easily get a graduate student to take over

the study and could easily expand it to Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela and

Mexico, but he couldn't afford to do it himself.

I should add that this man had had his luggage, passport and papers stolen

in Buenos Aires and was due to leave the next day for a conference in

Paris. And he fit me into his schedule! "We could use some help" he said.

In central Santiago I got a copy of La Prensa Austral a day late from Punta

Arenas. The front page had two inch headlines "BURNING SUN" and "Increase

in ultraviolet radiation reached dangerous levels yesterday" and "Clear

skies coincide with extension of the Ozone Hole to the limits of the

region." The entire second page was filled with ozone/ultraviolet stories.

But no one in Santiago was aware of what was going on, just as no one in

Buenos Aires, and no one anywhere being aware of what is going.

A part of our atmosphere that has been in existence for at least 400

million years and perhaps much much longer, has been changed by

unessential, really banal, human activities---in just 60 years! Really

amazing! And few seeming to notice it is happening right now. Not in 2010

or 2050, but now!

A few hours before I left for Miami, I went to the second largest newspaper

in Chile. I spoke to a staff reporter and I gave him a packet of papers

with a copy of the headline from La Prensa Austral. "How come nobody knows

this in Santiago?" I said. " I really don't know" he said shaking his head.

Why is it that you, dear reader, have to read about this in the Coastal Post?