Ahead in the Clouds

Susan Solomon helped patch the ozone hole. Now, as a leader of a major United Nations report—out this month—she’s going after global warming

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

This month, when the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization release their first major report on global climate change in six years, two things are likely to happen. Some people will dismiss it. And Susan Solomon will grow hoarse explaining why they shouldn't.

A no-nonsense 51-year-old atmospheric chemist, she's a co-leader of the massive new study, along with Qin Dahe, a climatologist from the China Meteorological Administration in Beijing. Solomon will become the public face of the U.N. report, in charge of presenting the best scientific thinking on the subject of global warming and the evidence that it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. "The science is strong," she says, "and we'll be presenting a consensus view."

To reach that consensus, Solomon logged more than 400,000 air miles over the past four years and held dozens of meetings with the report's more than 500 authors. "This much I can say: the climate is changing and quite noticeably," she says shortly before the report is released. In her paper- and book-crammed office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, she suggests that policy makers (and the rest of us) have reached a critical moment in our dealings with, or failings to deal with, climate change: "The effects will vary from region to region, and the challenge that society will face is to get people to think beyond their own backyards and to make judgments about the risks they're willing to take."

Maybe as the climate continues to warm, the ice caps won't melt; maybe a rising sea level will be offset by some other unforeseen event. She's reminded of the scene in Dirty Harry in which the cop played by Clint Eastwood confronts a criminal: "You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Solomon says, "That's what we as a society have to decide. Will we choose to go down the same path, or will we make some changes in our behaviors? You could say that the gun of climate change is pointed at us. So, how lucky do we feel?"

Scientists who study climate change or other environmental problems often feel like Cassandra, the mythical prophetess of the Trojan War who was cursed to foretell the future but not to be believed. But Solomon doesn't see herself that way at all. She's more optimistic than many of her climatology peers, and with good reason: she was a prime mover behind one of the most important global environmental turnarounds in history, repairing the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica.

Solomon made her first trip to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica in August 1986. She and her 15-man team went there to study a puzzling new phenomenon that British researchers had reported the year before: earth's protective ozone layer had begun to thin above the Antarctic. The planet was losing its best natural defense against the sun's ultraviolet radiation, which causes cancer and cataracts in people and can damage crops.

The plane landed in the middle of the day, in dark that was "like twilight at noon," Solomon recalls. Solomon was just 30. She'd completed her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley five years earlier, and she was an out-and-out geek, a theoretician who used a computer to model the chemistry of the atmosphere. Although she had no field experience, she'd been chosen leader of the first National Ozone Expedition to the Antarctic in part because she was one of the few scientists to take the ozone hole seriously. And she had devised a theory to explain it.

The suspected culprit was chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), because earlier studies had shown that these compounds, most of which are gases at room temperature, could damage earth's ozone shield. Invented in the 1920s, CFCs (made by linking atoms of chlorine, fluorine and carbon) had been put to use as aerosol propellants in hair spray and the like; CFCs were excellent coolants, too, and soon were in every refrigerator and air conditioner. But when released into the lower atmosphere—as they were with every squirt of an aerosol spray can—they drift with the winds up into the stratosphere. There, ultraviolet rays kick chlorine atoms out of CFCs, and each freed chlorine atom goes on to break apart as many as 100,000 ozone molecules.

The scientists who demonstrated the ozone-eating ability of CFCs—they would later earn a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the work—believed that the degradation high in the atmosphere would be slow, taking perhaps hundreds of years. Yet the ozone shield was disintegrating quickly. "And the thinning wasn't supposed to show up over Antarctica first," Solomon recalls, "since that's not where these chemicals were being used."

She came up with an explanation after noticing something that others had overlooked: the ozone depletion was occurring in the lower stretches of the ozone layer, about eight miles above the earth, rather than in the stratosphere's upper reaches. A self-confessed "weather-weenie" who loves watching summer afternoon thunderheads over the Rockies, Solomon knew that unusual clouds often form above the Antarctic each austral winter and spring. They are so full of ice crystals they shimmer like abalone shells. The crystals contain nitric and sulfuric acids, and Solomon speculated that when chlorine compounds came into contact with these cold, acidic clouds, the chlorine was transformed into rabid ozone-eating chemicals.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus