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Focus on Latin America

October 2011

A Hole in the Sky

PhotoSophisticated Japanese equipment helps measure the ozone hole

From the belly of a converted white shipping container a razor thin green laser beam shoots vertically into the icy but clear skies near the tip of South America.

The 10 mm diameter beam can reach heights of 80 kilometers and is helping to unlock the secrets of the so-called ‘ozone hole’—a tear 1 ½ times the land mass of the United States in the earth's protective ozone layer which gyrates annually over Antarctica and the extremes of the southern continent.

The ozone hole, first discovered in the late 1970s by startled scientists, allows damaging high-energy radiation to freely bombard the earth beneath, and can help cause skin cancer, injure eyes, harm the immune system of people below and upset the balance of entire eco-systems.

The green laser beam is emitted from a highly sensitive millimeter-spectral radiometer from Japan's Nagoya University which measures ozone profiles and is part of an international effort to understand the phenomena of the ozone layer and its ozone hole.

Under the umbrella of JICA, Japanese experts principally from Nagoya University's solar terrestrial environment laboratory have been working for several years with local experts in the southern Argentine city of Rio Gallegos to gather and collate information on the ozone hole.

Their headquarters are five converted shipping containers located on a remote airfield chosen because of the frequent cloud-free nights which allow the laser experiments to be held unimpeded. The multi-million dollar, highly sensitive spectral radiometer was shipped in 2010 during a hazardous days-long journey from neighboring Chile.

Dreams into Reality

PhotoChecking scientific instruments at Los Gallegos

Together with other sophisticated equipment the radiometer has helped turn "a dream into reality" for scientific researchers according to Dr. Jacobo Omar Salvador who has spent six years working in this "container world" and has also undergone advanced training in Japan.

In addition to its purely scientific research, the JICA project, which finishes during 2011, also helped develop a warning system against unnecessary exposure to UV light for Rio Gallegos and nearby residents and an educational program for local schools.

In front of the city's environmental center a device which acts in the same way as a traffic light flashes green when intensity levels are normal, but red or purple signals the need to take protective measures. Sensor readings are available on line.

The dangers are real. One female volunteer at the environmental center said, "We are very aware of the problem. I and several of my friends have developed skin problems." A 57-year-old who worked for several years at the local garbage dump points to his very red nose and told a visitor: "This is the result of the UV problem. It is an everyday worry."

PhotoLocal schoolchildren monitor radiation levels

The hole owes its origins to the development in the 1920s of non-toxic, non-flammable refrigerants from chlorofluorocarbons. A major adverse side effect was an attack on and a gradual breakdown of the ozone layer in the presence of high frequency UV light.

This chemical process works best in cold conditions with the resultant ozone hole over Antarctica.

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