F. Sherwood Rowland, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and
the Thinning of the Ozone Layer

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F. Sherwood Rowland
Photograph by John Blom

F. Sherwood Rowland … shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for helping to discover that a chemical used in hair spray, aerosol deodorants and kitchen refrigerators was slowly destroying Earth’s ozone layer … .

The compounds [chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs] — nontoxic and nonflammable — were known for their considerable stability, which had made them ideal as propellants in household products. They were also used as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators.

Dr. Rowland and [Mario] Molina discovered that it was the CFCs’ stability, however, that also allowed them to waft — one spray at a time — high into the atmosphere near the ozone layer. …

The researchers’ principal discovery was that the CFCs were thinning the ozone layer, without which plants and animals could not live on Earth’s surface. Moreover, the process would continue to get worse: CFCs were so hardy that they could linger in the air for 100 years.

Dr. Rowland and Molina published their findings in the British journal Nature in 1974. Their work did not immediately catch on in the scientific community.

By the late 1970s, a number of U.S. government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed to a ban on the use of CFCs in aerosols.

In 1985, British scientists announced that they had discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. It was about the size of the contiguous United States. The revelation that a high concentration of chlorine was floating in the polar air largely validated Dr. Rowland and Molina’s theory that CFCs were the main culprit.

In 1987, their research inspired the Montreal Protocol, a worldwide pledge signed by 70 countries agreeing to phase out the production and usage of CFCs. Today, 196 countries are signatories, including the United States.

Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview. “It [the Montreal Protocol] really saved the world from damaging UV rays. It did, I think, have a huge impact on atmospheric chemistry and also a huge humanitarian impact, as well.”


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