Accuracy in Media

If you haven’t heard anything about the ozone hole over
Antarctica lately it isn’t because it has gone away. Quite the
contrary. Despite the fact that the chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, that
were supposed to be causing it have been banned for many years, the
Antarctic ozone hole, whose appearances were largely responsible for
the international decision to ban the use of CFCs, is bigger than ever.

Last September it set a new record. It was found to extend over 17.6
million square miles, nearly twice the area of North America. In 1981,
the extremely low level of stratospheric ozone that is described as a
hole was found over only 900,000 square miles of Antarctica. The new
record set in September 2000 was not a freak. The previous record had
been set just two years earlier, in 1998.

I have asked over a dozen acquaintances whether they thought that
the ozone hole had decreased, remained about the same or increased in
size since CFCs were banned. Only one person, a reporter for the
Associated Press, knew that it had increased in size. The others could
only guess, and nearly all guessed wrong. They thought that it had
decreased in size or remained about the same. Ten to 15 years ago,
increases in the size of the Antarctic ozone hole were big news.

You may recall that in 1992, there was a report that got a lot of
media attention about an ozone hole that might be opening up over the
North Pole for the first time. It was suggested that it might extend as
far south as Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family has a summer
home. There was no hole over the North Pole and Kennebunkport was never
in danger of getting hit with heavy ultra-violet radiation. That and
other scare stories were an essential part of the drive to get freon
and other CFC’s banned on the ground that they were responsible for the
depletion of the ozone in the stratosphere.

The news media cooperated beautifully, just as they have done with
respect to scare stories about global warming. Reporters and editors
seem to derive great satisfaction from their ability to get things like
freon and fossil fuels that humans find useful banned or curtailed on
the ground that they endanger our health or the environment. [It is too
bad that they don’t feel the same way about the excreta that pollute
the minds of our young people, putting their lives, health and
happiness in jeopardy.]

The failure of the banning of CFC’s to halt the growth of the
Antarctic ozone hole, much less shrink it, has taken those who backed
it by surprise. In reporting the record size of the hole in 1998, the
National Aeronautic and Space Agency, NASA, had an explanation that
allayed any concerns that the ban had not had any effect. It said,
“Scientists are not concerned that the hole might be growing because
they know it is the direct result of unusually cold stratospheric
temperatures.” It predicted that ozone losses resulting from CFCs and
other sources of chlorine would be reduced as we moved into the
twenty-first century.

Last year’s record was a disappointment to scientists at NASA and
the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. Dr. Michael H.
Proffitt, senior scientist at the WMO, said, “I’ve been very much
expecting a turnaround, a leveling off.” A source at NASA says there
were many disappointed people at NASA when they learned that the hole
had set a new record. A NASA program called the Stratospheric Aerosol
and Gas Experiment, SAGE, has concluded that “aerosols such as those
produced by major volcanic eruptions” are a factor in causing the ozone
losses. NASA says this is “a finding contrary to predictions of
classical atmospheric chemistry models.” Those are the models on which
the ban on CFCs was based.

The record size of the ozone hole last year should have been big
news, but it was unwelcome news to those who had campaigned for the ban
on CFC’s on the ground that this would halt the depletion of the
stratospheric ozone that protects us from harmful ultra-violet
radiation. A Nexis search found only a hundred stories about the
record-setting hole. One was a 200-word AP story in The Washington Post
saying that CFCs in the stratosphere were “leveling off” but it could
take twenty years for the ozone to recover. The New York Times had a
longer story that suggested that the expansion of the ozone hole might
be explained by global warming. Go figure!

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