“What good is research about the distant universe, when it will never have any direct impact on our lives? Why should we fund people to play around like that? What has NASA ever done for me?”

Earth on October 19, 2015

These are legitimate questions to ask, but it always sends a pang of sadness through me when I hear them. They reflect one of the least understood aspects of science: how the very act of inquiry can have tremendous, unforeseen ramifications.

Sure, some people will joke about how NASA gave us Tang and Velcro (neither of which were invented by NASA), while more thoughtful people might point out that the hugely significant personal computer revolution may have been set off by the Apollo program’s need to bring smaller, lighter computers into space. But there is a deeper story too, and one that honestly gives me chills.

How We Almost Destroyed the Ozone Layer — and Saved It

We almost destroyed Earth’s environment. Seriously, that’s not really all that much of an understatement. In the late 1970’s scientists around the world, some working with ground-based data and others with measurements from NASA satellites, noticed that something very dramatic — and very bad — was happening to Earth’s ozone layer. At first, even the scientists were suspicious of their own data. The ozone layer appeared to be in a massive decline. That just should not be happening. No one could explain it. So scientists got to work.

The ozone layer is Earth’s natural sunscreen, absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. As ozone levels dropped, humans would experience a gradual uptick in sunburns and skin cancer (unpleasant enough), but without action, the ozone layer would have been mostly depleted by the year 2060, with catastrophic results. Certain crops would have died, livestock would have been impacted, and people would have had to be relocated. The food supply would have been disrupted, resulting in huge economic impacts and, very probably, conflict — maybe even wars.

In this episode of Orbital Path, we speak to two scientists who were there in the trenches. Neither started out trying to save the world. Susan Solomon led an expedition to the Antarctic, where an actual hole in the ozone layer was developing. She and her colleagues eventually figured out what was destroying the ozone layer: it was us. Industrial chemicals found in multiple sources from refrigeration to hairspray cans were being transported through our atmosphere and concentrated in Antarctica, where rare, high-altitude clouds brought them up into the stratosphere. Once the chemicals had gotten up where no one thought they should be, they began breaking down Earth’s ozone layer. NASA scientists like Anne Douglass joined in the campaign, measuring ozone from space, and pretty soon people all over the world began to realize what was at stake here. Something had to be done.

And so it was. Scientists, politicians, leaders of the chemical industry, and a strong interest and support from the general public all came together to form the Montreal Protocol, which, in 1987, took the first steps to banning chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer. Now the ozone hole has stabilized and may even be slowly healing. Disaster was averted.

Listen to the podcast:

This story has a happy ending, and one that continues to inspire me for two major reasons. First, scientific research for its own sake can have tremendous, almost incalculable value. Scientists seeking to understand the chemistry of our atmosphere, just for the sake of curiosity, may have saved your life.

Second, we, as a species, are capable of working together to make the right decisions about caring for our planet. Yes, we are facing a larger, far more complicated challenge in addressing climate change. But it’s time to dig in and figure out what the first steps are. Leaders in government, industry, and science, with the participation and enthusiasm of the public, can come together to do what’s right. Let’s get started on that right away.

Orbital Path is produced by PRX and supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Don't miss PRX's other science podcasts: Transistor and Outside Magazine.


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