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Ozone layer recovery: Jury is still out, but verdict likely soon

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Recent studies show that new dreams driven by short-time achievements make us forget the real objective and purpose of long-term missions. The global environmental accord called The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is a case in point. Its key objective is to protect the stratospheric ozone layer that shields life on the Earth. Has that mission been achieved?

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The ozone layer is a protective screen about 8-50 kms from Earth’s surface. It filters out high-energy, destructive UV-rays from the Sun. After more than a decade of scientific postulations, vigorous studies and observations it was revealed that the ozone shield has been threatened by man-made chemicals, mainly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and their emissions into the atmosphere.

Depletion of the ozone layer was considered a catastrophic risk to the life on the Earth.

In 1987, world leaders, after protracted negotiations under the UNEP, agreed that the way to protect the life-saving ozone layer was to phase-out production and consumption of CFCs, and nearly 100 other man-made ozone-depleting chemicals that travel up into the stratosphere. The Montreal Protocol was thus born and since then, has become a universally ratified treaty. All the member-states of UN are Parties to the Protocol.

Image result for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in 2000 that the Montreal Protocol

The Protocol will celebrate its 30th Anniversary later this year in Montreal. Indeed, there are reasons to be upbeat. Ninety-eight per cent of the production of ozone-depleting chemicals has been shut down. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in 2000 that the Montreal Protocol was “perhaps the single-most successful international agreement so far”. More recently in 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, called it as ‘milestone for all people and our planet’

The numbers are astounding and overwhelming. Without the Protocol, we could have got sunburnt in five minutes. There would have been an additional 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.5 million skin cancer deaths and 45 million cataracts in the US alone, according to the Environment Protection Agency.

If the impact due to loss of food production due to UV rays penetrating through the ozone layer and the weakening of human immune system is considered, one can say that Earth has avoided the possibility of a sixth extinction.

Last year, there were global headlines when all countries unanimously agreed to amend the Protocol to include the “phase-down” of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). That was an unprecedented decision because HFCs do not only deplete the ozone Layer — albeit in a much weaker way than CFCs — they have a dangerously high global warming potential.

Interestingly, they are also part of the six Green House Gases (GHGs) packaged in the Paris Climate Agreement that aims to control their emissions. The countries, in other words, decided to help the Paris Climate Agreement by using another international treaty — the Montreal Protocol. Many called it “surrogate mothering” by the countries.

Image result for Ozone Hole Green House Gases

The reasons for this extraordinary “inter-treaty” intersect was that HFCs were mainly introduced to replace CFCs under the Montreal Protocol. In a way, the countries wanted to correct the inadvertent error they had committed by introducing HFCs. They rightly thought that all the successful armoury in the form of institutional and financing resources were accessible. Hence dreaming of conquering HFCs — albeit a new territory — was logical.

So, has the ozone layer being saved and is it on recovery mode?

One of the key factors to assess the success in its recovery is to measure the depth and extent of annual appearance of the “Ozone Hole” over Antarctica. Every spring (August to October), when the sun rays break out over the frozen continent, the chemical species riding on the tiny ice particles in the Antarctic vortex start destroying the ozone layer. This annual “dance festival” tells us the extent of the ozone hole’s recovery.

Flying over the lower end of the polar vortex recently in a DC-8 NASA aircraft loaded with 23 instruments, Paul A. Newman, the Agency’s Chief Scientist, measured the chemical radicals in the vertical column of atmosphere.

Newman said the NASA mission recorded that the 2017 ozone hole was unusually small and weak in depth. However, he was quick to add that “this weaker ozone hole is a result of year-to-year variability of the meteorology and it is still not known if it is an evidence of recovery because the meteorological variability masks the long-term projected trend”.

Variability is evidently having a last laugh.

In 2000, the hole had a record size. In 2002, it was half the size. In 2006, it was almost another record size. In 2012, it was second smallest. In 2016 it was again worse than average.

As per the latest 2014 UNEP-World Meteorological Organisation’s Scientific Assessment Panel report, the measured tropospheric concentrations of ozone depleting substances continue to decrease.

Susan Solomon, pioneer atmospheric scientist and Professor at MIT, stated in 2016 that we had succeeded in creating a situation for ozone layer recovery. The expected recovery is projected by the Science Assessment Panel by middle of this century.

I asked Dr Newman: “Tell me doctor, is the ozone layer finally recovering?”.

Quick came his response from the southern tip of Chile: “Ozone-depleting substances in the troposphere are decreasing. Chlorine and Bromine species in stratosphere are decreasing. On recovery of the Ozone Layer? Jury is still out, but we’re all pretty sure that they’ll soon render a verdict!”

(Rajendra Shende is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, IIT alumnus and former Director, UNEP. Views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

Nature

Flamingos migrated from Gujarat’s Kutch seen at Mumbai’s Airoli, Watch video

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Flamingo
Flamingos migrating from Kutch

Flock of flamingos which migrated from Gujarat’s Kutch seen at Mumbai’s Airoli on Saturday. Every year Mumbaikers witnesses an estimated 20,000-25,000 flamingoes.

Flamingos

The places where the birds can be seen in abundance are Thane creek, Airoli, Mahul and Sewri. Most of the flamingo population that comes to the city consists of Lesser Flamingoes; the rest are Greater Flamingoes.

 

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The strange trio of Sex, Science and the State — and its consequences

Though her thesis is not brought out very exhaustively, she makes a fair enough case and that is enough to make this a must read — especially for ministers.

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Sex and Gender

An Indian minister has made himself notorious all over social media for his comments questioning Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but can we take this to show that the two worlds — of politics and science — are exclusive or even antagonistic? Not at all, and scientific disciplines that apparently seem farthest placed from human affairs may be the most influential.

For science has done more for setting the course of nations and their governance and economy than we can suspect — beyond its part in helping develop powerful weapons or technologies.

While this alliance of politics and science is a far more recent development than we think, it owes its genesis to botany, and two 18th century natural scientists who furthered this combination, as Patricia Fara shows in this book, part of a special set chronicling key turning points in science.

And this — in the last three decades or so of the 18th century — qualifies well enough for it shows how science progressed beyond the pastime or patronage of rich, idle noblemen to become institutionalised with government support.

And as Fara, from the History and Philosophy of Science department at Cambridge University, shows it not only saw the rather incongruous trio of the “Three Ss” — sex, science and the state — coming together with so many consequences, but also brought the subject of sex out into the public discourse, though against much opposition.

It also set in train a process — in Britain initially — that would lead a few decades later to Darwin boarding HMS Beagle to make the observations that enabled him to formulate his theory of man’s origin and development — a theory which has stood the test of time despite what some misguided or willfully ignorant politicians may think.

At the heart of this development, shows Fara’s account, were two naturalists, not as famous as Issac Newton or Darwin but contributing to science’s progress at a time “science started to become established and gain prestige”.

And both of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks, along with the other Enlightenment contemporaries, “fought hard to establish that scientific knowledge was valid and valuable”.

Linnaeus was a gifted but eccentric and self-propagandising Swede whose classification system for all living organism still rules today, but raised hackles of his conservative society by using sexual parts to order flowers and using human terminology for the purpose.

Banks was his British “disciple” -turned-science administrator — and no less self-propagandising — but also managed to make “science work for the state — and the state to pay for science”. A key cameo is played by that intrepid explorer, Captain James Cook.

And in telling their story, Fara ranges over small Swedish towns and the country’s unforgiving terrain, the mansions and the seats of power of Georgian England as well as its lush countryside, hazardous voyages over uncharted oceans, encounters with uninhibited, pre-industrial societies in South Pacific islands, ambition and professional jealousy, to show how the underlying root was something more heartlessly mercenary.

For, as she contends, “scientific exploration in the Age of Reason was driven by an imperialist agenda to own, to conquer and to exploit”. But apart from the above spin-offs, there were some other positive benefits too, as she brings out. Say the way, men, especially white Europeans, began to see rest of humanity and themselves in the world, or what women could be allowed to study or not — though it would still take time before all these would be tangibly realised for all.

Along with her lucid and telling discourse on the birth of modern botany with Linnaeus and Banks — almost concurrently with its economic uses, Fara also enlivens it with a colourful account of their explorations in various climes and encounters with exotic races and, above all, the contemporary public reactions to their discoveries and doings. And this could have a thing or two to teach protesters today.

Though her thesis is not brought out very exhaustively, she makes a fair enough case and that is enough to make this a must read — especially for ministers.

By : Vikas Datta

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected]

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France ditches plans for controversial west coast airport

Activists on the 1,600-hectare rural site say they have developed it into a utopia of organic farming and political debate.

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Edouard Philippe

The French government on Wednesday formally abandoned decades-old plans for a controversial new airport on the west coast that became a site of resistance for environmental activists.

In a keenly awaited announcement, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the divisions unleashed by the proposed new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes near the city of Nantes made it impossible to proceed.

“The project cannot go ahead in a climate of bitter opposition between two sides of the population that are nearly equal in size,” he said, adding: “The project is therefore abandoned.

The decision ends years of debate over a project first mooted in the 1960s — but sets the stage for a possible standoff with environmental activists who have been occupying the airport site for the past decade.

Activists on the 1,600-hectare rural site say they have developed it into a utopia of organic farming and political debate.

Philippe gave them until the spring to leave voluntarily, after which they would be evicted.

“We will put a stop to the no-go zone which has flourished in this area for nearly 10 years,” he said.

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