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
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
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
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
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