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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #18: Sherwood Rowland, 1995 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry

Air Date: Week of

This year's Nobel prize co-winner in chemistry is Professor Sherwood Rowland. After years of standing up to critics' ridicule for his research into ozone depletion and CFC's, his work is now widely recognized for its authenticity and has earned him and two colleagues the coveted Nobel prize. Virginia Biggar has this profile.


NUNLEY: A modest scientific inquiry that changed the course of environmental history and captured a Nobel Prize. That story just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: This year for the first time in history, a Nobel Prize was awarded for work on an environmental issue. The winners, Sherwood Rowland of the University of California at Irvine, Mario Molina, now at MIT, and Dutch scientist Paul Krutzen of Germany's Max Planck Institute, were the first to discover the connection between the use of chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerants and propellants and the destruction of the Earth's protective ozone layer. The prize was a kind of vindication for these scientists, whose work is still questioned in some political circles. As part of our series on 25 influential environmental figures, Virginia Biggar spoke with Sherwood Rowland in Los Angeles.

(Flowing water, bird calls.)

BIGGAR: Southern California was once best known for its surf and sun-worshipping beachgoers. In recent years, though, that's changed.

ROWLAND: There are an awful lot more umbrellas on the beach now than there were 10 years ago.

BIGGAR: Atmospheric chemist Sherwood Rowland, one of Southern California's own, is largely responsible for that. Ultraviolet rays is a dirty word because of his research. In 1973 Rowland was looking for a new project. He was intrigued by recent findings of chlorofluorocarbon gases, or CFCs, in part of the atmosphere. CFCs were then a common and supposedly harmless gas used in industry and consumer products. Rowland and his colleague Mario Molina decided to investigate further.

ROWLAND: We in effect tried to find out the entire lifetime of what would happen to a chlorofluorocarbon gas molecule, and found that nothing would happen to it in the lower part of the atmosphere. But that it would eventually come apart in the stratosphere by the influence of high-energy solar radiation. And when it came apart it would release chlorine atoms.

BIGGAR: Rowland says they then looked at what happened to these chlorine atoms.

ROWLAND: And that's when we found that they were going to destroy ozone.

BIGGAR: Ozone forms a thin protective layer around the Earth, shielding it from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Rowland says he and Molina found that chlorine atoms broke ozone molecules apart much faster than they were produced. They estimated a loss of up to 13% of the ozone layer in about 100 years, bringing huge increases in skin cancer and crop damage, and possibly changes in the world's weather patterns.

ROWLAND: Our initial reaction to this was, I think, disbelief. We didn't start out looking at an environmental problem and so we checked it over, and we didn't find anything wrong. In fact, we realized that it was right.

BIGGAR: What followed was a high-stakes nearly 15-year debate between activists and industry over whether to get rid of CFCs. It ultimately resulted in a 1987 global agreement to phase out the compounds. Richard Benedick was the Reagan Administration's chief negotiator on what came to be known as the Montreal Protocol. He says the agreement was historic.

BENEDICK: It was the first time that the international community of nations could agree on taking rather serious steps to control a very important part of the chemical industry, of any industry, in this case the chemical industry, on the basis of science which was not totally proven. In other words, it was truly a precautionary principle, like an insurance policy, against future damages.

BIGGAR: The impact of Rowland and Molina's work has been felt in the scientific community as well. Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund says it brought critical attention to the question of how human actions alter the global environment.

OPPENHEIMER: It has been transformed from a matter of philosophical speculation into a question of hard science, and answering what are human beings doing to the ozone layer, what are human beings doing to Earth's climate, what are human beings doing to the oceans, is becoming more and more a major focus of scientific endeavor.

BIGGAR: Still, there are a few who continue to doubt the validity of Rowland and Molina's findings. Rowland says he was disturbed by recent testimony in Congress claiming that CFCs aren't destroying the ozone layer.

ROWLAND: That's simply not a belief in the working scientific community and the atmospheric science community. But it is something that it's easy to sell in Washington.

BIGGAR: When the Swedish Academy awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Rowland and his colleagues, one member said he hoped it would help put this debate to rest. Sherry Rowland continues to teach and study atmospheric pollution. When asked how he'd like to be remembered, Rowland first says he doesn't really care much, then adds, maybe as a scientist that gave taxpayers their money's worth. For Living on Earth, I'm Virginia Biggar.



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