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The hole that will not mend
New Scientist 30 Aug 97

FOCUS "Donor apathy" among Western governments is allowing an illegal trade in CFCs to flourish in Russia, which is too poor to dismantle the factories that make the ozone-depleting gas

IF YOU enjoy baring your flesh to the Sun you may be interested to know that, as you baste yourself in suntan oil to ward off the perils of ultraviolet light, the governments of many industrialised countries are boycotting an impressive project to save the Earth's own sunblock-the ozone layer. The project, which is the brainchild of the World Bank, involves shutting down seven Russian factories that are manufacturing ozone-eating CFCs in defiance of international law. Besides supplying Russian markets, the factories are believed to be the major source of CFCS for an international smuggling trade that threatens to undermine efforts to protect the ozone layer. The factories should have ceased production more than 18 months ago. The Soviet Union, and later Russia, signed the Montreal Protocol in 1988 and the subsequent London and Copenhagen amendments in 1990 and 1992. Under the protocol, which celebrates its tenth anniversary at a meeting in Montreal starting on 9 September, industrialised countries have agreed to phase out the production and use of CFCS, halons and a number of other ozone-depleting substances by certain deadlines. Halons were largely banned after January 1994, and CFCs after January 1996. But Russia has failed to meet either deadline. The World Bank says the Russian government is too poor and too disorganised to dismantle the country's CFC factories. So last autumn it called on Western governments to donate between $40 million and $50 million to pay off workers at the seven plants, destroy key manufacturing equipment and help the companies involved switch to new products. The bank calls the project "the most cost-effective and environmentally significant opportunity for the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances in the world". Earlier this year, faced with donor apathy, bank officials scaled down the scheme to $27 million. Even so, by early August only four governments had backed the initiative, and only $13 million had been pledged, says Bill Rahill, the bank official in charge. The contributors so far are the US with $6 million, Britain with some $3 million and Denmark and Norway with $2 million each. However, the Bank can only claim this money if the other $14 million is raised. The importance of the project is clear. The bank points to "mounting evidence that ozone-depleting substances of Russian origins are finding their way into markets that have banned such material".

A seminar on environmental crime held in London last October heard that an estimated 30 000 tonnes of CFCs are smuggled into Europe and North America each year, mostly by the Russian mafia. The trade takes place under the cover of legal business: European and North American companies are allowed to produce CFCs for use in developing countries, and to sell recycled CFCs to companies within the European Union (This Week, 26 October 1996, p 4). The US Customs Service has launched a concerted effort to crack down on CFC smuggling and says it believes its success can be measured by a rapid rise in the price of legitimate CFCS. But European officials have been slower to acknowledge the problem. Last October, Britain's then environment minister John Gummer attacked the CFC black marketeers as "in the same league as drug smugglers". But at the same time, British customs officials said: "We have no hard evidence of CFC smuggling in Europe at all." According to industry expert Duncan Brack of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Britain's Customs and Excise has since accepted, in a confidential report to the Department of the Environment, that some smuggled CFCs do reach Britain. But officials have argued that it would be disproportionately expensive to take extra steps to stem the flow. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a campaigning group based in London, has led efforts to investigate this issue.

Antarctic Ozone Hole Bigger Than Ever By PHILIP ENGLISH NZ Herald Sep 98

Scientists are monitoring the growth of the largest-ever ozone hole over the Antarctic. The hole is covering 27 million square kilometres of the frozen continent and has developed earlier, faster and up to 25 per larger than the previous record hole in 1996.

Ozone levels are monitored by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research at Scott Base in Antarctica and at Lauder in Central Otago, where institute scientist Dr Brian Connor said yesterday that latest research was showing global warming due to the greenhouse effect would cause the hole to get worse over the next decade.

Up to this year, scientists had been confident that the ozone layer over the Antarctic would recover in 50 years. Now, the recovery could be delayed by 10 to 20 years. Dr Connor said ozone levels over New Zealand caused by global depletion of the ozone layer separate from the ozone hole phenomena were similar to previous years but about 5 per cent lower than they were in the late 1970s. A research institute scientist at Scott Base, br Stephen Wood, said the main manifestation of the ozone hole was out-of-the-ordinary but beautiful mother-of-pearl-coloured clouds about 18km to 20km in the atmosphere. 'One of the spectacles Of spring is these clouds. They are part of the ozone hole ... They are the first sign of something different happening that you can actually see." The other clue that something is wrong comes when Dr Wood takes scientific measurements which show the extent of the ozone layer depletion. "I am running half a dozen different instruments and the measurements I see are very unusual."

Algal Gloom New Scientist 8 Aug 98 24

THE impact of ozone holes on plankton in the Arctic and Southern oceans may be much greater than anyone thought. Scientists at the University of Plymouth have found that the reproductive cells of algae are several times as sensitive to ultraviolet radiation as mature cells. This means that ozone holes may seriously stunt the growth of marine plankton, the base of the ocean's food chain. A team led by Britt Cordi of the university's Environmental Research Centre has been studying the sensitivity of the reproductive cells of the species Enteroiorpha intestinalis to UV-B, the ultraviolet radiation that streams through the ozone holes over the north and south polar regions. In the laboratory they found that asexual spores were six times as sensitive to UV-B as mature algae, measured by the slowdown in their rate of photosynthesis after each increase in exposure. Free-swimming gametes, the sexual means of reproduction, were more susceptible still. After one hour's exposure to the equivalent of an ozone hole with 30 per cent of the ozone layer gone, the rate of photosynthesis fell by 65 per cent. This, says Cordi, reduced the growth rate of the organisms by up to 17 per cent and halved their chances of successful germination. The findings were presented at the 1998 final year student meeting of the Wellcome Trust in London last month. Cordi concludes that because past studies have ignored the early life of the algae, "the ecological significance of elevated UV-B exposure in the marine environment may be seriously underestimated". For several months each southern spring, two thirds of the ozone shield protecting Antarctica and the surrounding ocean from ultraviolet radiation is destroyed. Up to half of the shield over the Arctic region is also lost for a short time. These changes are caused by emissions of chemicals such as CFCS. Plankton are the ocean's "meadows". They are the main food of krill, the crustaceans on which marine mammals feed. Past monitoring of plankton in the Southern Ocean has measured plankton loss of between 6 and 12 per cent when ozone levels are low. But the new findings suggest that the ecological impact could be greatest at particular times in the spring, during so-called "blooms" when plankton reproduction is at its most intense. Fred Pearce