Joe Farman, a British scientist who discovered manmade damage to Earth's ozone layer in the 1980s, has died at age 82. On top of exposing the leak, Farman also helped set the stage for the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an ozone-saving treaty that showed humanity can right environmental wrongs without economic collapse, even on a global scale.
Farman studied natural sciences at England's Corpus Christi College, then served in the British Army and worked for an aircraft company before he found his calling. He answered an ad in 1956 seeking scientists to work in Antarctica, and soon joined what's now known as the British Antarctic Survey. Then, after 30 years of dogged and often unappreciated research, he published one of the most important scientific papers of the 20th century.
The sky is failing
Scientists had already begun to grasp the complex nature of ozone — a pollutant at ground level but a life-saving shield in the atmosphere — and even knew it may be vulnerable to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration systems. But with no solid evidence that CFCs were actually hurting the ozone layer, there seemed little urgency to rein in their widespread use around the world.
The ozone layer begins roughly 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the Earth's surface. (Image: NASA)
Farman left Antarctica in 1959 to take a management role in England, but he continued to oversee the survey's ozone research through the 1960s and '70s. This work came under fire in the early '80s amid budget cuts, though, and the New York Times reports Farman's superiors mocked his insistence that decades of ozone data would be useful. But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher eventually came to the British Antarctic Survey's rescue, the Guardian points out, as the former chemist saw its scientific potential as well as its strategic importance in Britain's struggle with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Then, in 1982, Farman's career-defining breakthrough began. Using an outdated spectrometer to measure ozone levels, he initially thought his instrument must be broken. He was seeing a dramatic drop in Antarctic ozone, and since not even NASA satellites had detected this, he ordered new equipment. But the new one also "went haywire," as he described it, and he began to realize he was on to something. Along with co-authors Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin, he published a groundbreaking study in 1985 that shocked the world and launched a new era of international eco-politics.
The 1985 study showed a 40 percent drop in ozone above Antarctica, creating a soft spot in the ozone layer — not literally a hole — that let in ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. This not only embarrassed NASA and other scientists who had missed the leak, but also sparked a frenzy to minimize its effects on public health. According to calculations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the excess UV exposure could trigger 40 million cases of skin cancer and 800,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. alone.
Spectrometer images show the ozone hole grow during the 1980s and '90s. Dark blue indicates the thinnest ozone, while light blue, green and yellow represent progressively thicker layers. (Images: NASA)
Many environmental crises of the '60s and '70s were mostly local — like toxic waste dumping and wildlife declines — but the ozone hole represented a serious danger to life across the planet. And despite chemical industry protests that phasing out CFCs would cripple economic growth, the unprecedented rehab effort proved them wrong.
Leaders from around the world met in Montreal in September 1987, eventually producing a treaty to curtail CFCs called the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Eventually ratified by all 197 members of the United Nations, the Montreal Protocol has undergone several revisions in the past 25 years but is still widely considered a model for environmental treaties of all kinds. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called it "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date."
The Montreal Protocol has also had pitfalls, though: CFCs were sometimes replaced with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which later turned out to be heat-trapping greenhouse gases even more potent than carbon dioxide. But safer alternatives also emerged, and despite some missteps, the treaty is expected to help Earth's ozone layer fully recover by 2080. That's far from a quick fix, but according to the Guardian, "without the work of Farman the effects could have been catastrophic."
The treaty also remains a beacon to world leaders and diplomats trying to strike a meaningful global pact on climate change. Carbon-emitting fossil fuels are much more deeply embedded in the economy than CFCs were, but the Montreal Protocol at least serves as a precedent demonstrating how humanity can tackle a broad environmental threat by banding together and following scientists' advice.
An animation of projected ozone over North America if the Montreal Protocol had failed. (Images: NASA)
Although several scientists won a Nobel Prize for their work on CFCs, Farman never received that honor. He was granted many other scientific awards, though, including the U.K. Polar Medal, the Society of Chemical Industry's environmental medal, the Appleton (formerly Chree) medal and prize, and membership in the United Nations Global 500 honor roll. He conducted research in Antarctica until his retirement in 1990, and remained active well into his later years, the Guardian reports, growing his own vegetables at home and biking to work until he suffered a stroke in February.
Farman died May 11 in Cambridge, England, according to a statement released by the British Antarctic Survey. He is survived by Paula, his wife of 42 years.
"Joe was an excellent physicist and his work changed the way that we view the natural world," says Alan Rodger, interim director of the British Antarctic Survey, in a press release. "After making the discovery of the ozone hole he became an energetic ambassador for our planet. Our thoughts are with his wife, Paula."
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