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EDGE / FRONTIERS: Four Fieldss That Have Been Shaped
by, and Are Shaping, Southern California

ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE : Sure, the Cuyahoga River Is No Longer on Fire, but the Planet Is Still a Mess. The Challenge of the Future Is to Confront the Increasingly Complex Threats to Our Air and Food and Water and Children.

July 25, 1999|MARLA CONE | Marla Cone is a Times environmental writer

Halfway into the new century, the Earth will still suffer from an array of frightening ills: Foul water? Inevitably. Sickening air? Quite likely. Vanishing wildlife? Definitely. Environmental scientists, though, can predict one thing with certainty: The hole in the ozone layer will be virtually healed. For that you can thank a chemist nobody knew, at a university few people had heard of and a discovery that shook the world.

Twenty-five years ago chemicals in everyday products such as deodorants and air conditioners were rising in the atmosphere, chewing a huge hole in the ozone layer that protects Earth. Experts had long thought these chlorine-based chemicals were harmless. Nobody suspected they were slowly building up far away, in the stratosphere. Until F. Sherwood Rowland spoke up. Even then, people were slow to believe the breakthrough in atmospheric chemistry that Rowland and postdoctoral fellow Mario Molina discovered in their UC Irvine lab in 1973.

Today, as the millennium ends, ozone depletion is common wisdom. The compounds, called chlorofluorocarbons, were finally banned in developed nations under a famous international treaty. And in 1995, Rowland and Molina won a Nobel Prize for their work. It was a stunning success story, a watershed moment for environmental science. Yet it shows that knowledge doesn't always bring immediate cures. Indeed, it will be 50 years before the hole closes.

Half a century after an atmospheric chemist discovered the composition of Los Angeles smog, and almost 40 years after biologist Rachel Carson described pesticides silencing birds, scientists are still struggling to understand--and undo--the complex layers of damage that humans have inflicted on nature. Yet this isn't "gee whiz" stuff that we can sit around and ponder for another century. Credible answers are critical to the world's economy and health. Scientists will help shape environmental-protection efforts that cost hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, altering the products we buy, the food we eat, the vehicles we drive, the fuel we burn.


Thirty years ago, America's problems were much more obvious. Rivers caught fire because they were so polluted. The Great Lakes were so filthy that you could put your hand in the water and pull it out covered with slime. DDT was wiping out pelicans, eagles and falcons in California. Lakes were acidified in the Northeast. Raw sewage and industrial waste routinely flowed into the ocean and waterways. Air pollution was so severe that Angelenos were warned to spend virtually the entire summer indoors. But as Y2K dawns, the problems are more subtle, and that means science is even more critical when it comes to designing--and defending--costly cures.

Today, more than one-third of U.S. waterways are still unsafe for people and aquatic creatures. The list of endangered animals and plants keeps growing. More than 1,000 Superfund sites exist. The Los Angeles basin--specifically San Bernardino County--still tops the list of polluted U.S. metropolises, with air deemed unhealthful to breathe on 62 days last year alone. In the next millennium, environmental researchers will wrestle with issues that are fundamental to the quality of life--some say even the survival of humans and other life forms that share the planet.

Certain areas of exploration will be especially hot:

How are children and fetuses harmed by chemicals in our food, water and air? What are the cumulative health effects of the things we eat, drink and breathe? What is happening to biodiversity in our backyard and around the world, and what does that mean to life on Earth? How much can we expect our climate to change from greenhouse gases? How healthy are the world's oceans? What are the best ways to clean up the toxic legacies that linger from our past?

Although most environmental problems in the United States are improving, scientists are finding new ones as they hone their ability to detect changes. They now measure pollutants in the parts per trillion. They run complex computer models predicting the future. They use satellites and geographic information systems to map endangered animals or track a plume of polluted ocean water. They test the DNA of whales, of eagles, of viruses. They detect seemingly slight variations in climate.

"It is certainly true," says UC Irvine's Rowland, "that within the scientific community, the ability to measure with greater sensitivity and with greater precision allows you to be sure that something is happening. Before you might have only thought something was happening. Now, more frequently, we can actually get the evidence." What that means, Rowland adds, is that "it is harder for politicians to deny it."

Ozone depletion taught scientists that they can prompt international action if their message resonates. With that problem, "we've already taken control of the next millennium," says Michael Prather, a UCI atmospheric scientist.

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