Who Discovered These 5 Environmental Nightmares?

Meet the modern-day Einsteins credited with identifying acid rain, global warming, dead zones, ozone holes, and plastic garbage patches.

When factories dump fertilizer into the sea, they create dead zones, where no fish can survive. (Photo: Ho New/Reuters)

May 21, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

New scientific discoveries are made everyday, from the grandiose (during missions to Mars) to the bizarre (male bicep size relates to political beliefs).

It dawned on me when I read the obituary this past weekend of British researcher Joseph Farman—credited with discovering the ozone hole over Antarctica—that even the planet’s worst environmental nightmares have founders, some researcher who was first to identify them and bring them to the public’s attention.

Farmer’s discovery of a hole in the ozone the size of the United States was a surprise even to him. During a 25-year career with the British Antarctic Survey studying Antarctica’s atmosphere, he never anticipated that his dedication to research would turn him into a working-class hero among scientists.

His findings, published in Nature in 1985, showed that ozone levels over Antarctica had fallen by about 40 percent from 1975 to 1984. The paper, published with colleagues, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 and led to the Montreal Protocol first signed in 1987 and since ratified by 200 countries, which was intended to phase-out ozone-destroying chemicals (primarily chlorofluorocarbons used in spray cans and refrigeration.) Former secretary general of the United Nations Kofi Anan called it “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

Here are four other eco-nightmares, and the scientist that discovered them:

Global Warming: Wallace Smith Broecker (1931-2007) gets credit for discovering what has become the most serious environmental challenge facing mankind. In August 1975 he published a paper in Science titled “Are We On the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” Previously the warming trend being noticed by climate scientists had been referred to as “inadvertent climate modification.” Broecker dismissed the use of the word “modification” because it suggested the future climate could go either way, hotter or colder. He was convinced the planet was going to warm, period. (Recently-retired NASA scientist James Hansen gets credit for popularizing the term when he used it in 1988 Congressional testimony.)

Acid Rain: F. Herbert Bormann (1922-2012) was the first to document the impacts of increased levels of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide in the air thanks to smokestack pollution falling on plants, fish and bodies of water. In 1971, the Yale and Dartmouth ecologist was conducting research in forests of New Hampshire when he discovered high rates of acid in local waterways. Tests showed that acidity up and down the East Coast had risen by up to 1,000 percent since the 1950s. In 1990, Congress enacted the Clean Air Act—chief among its goals was reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from companies and power plants. Bormann testified at the hearings that created the new law.

Dead Zones: The reality is that teams make most scientific discoveries, which is the case with the first dead zone identified growing in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Often cited as being the “size of Texas,” this “hypoxic zone”—created by nitrous and phosphorous running into the Mississippi from farming operations—is most closely identified with Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium executive director, marine ecologist and MacArthur grantee Nancy Rabalais, who since the mid-1980s has led long-term monitoring efforts in the Gulf. Dead zones were first noticed in the 1970s, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Black Sea, but the link to what was causing them wasn’t made until the Gulf of Mexico studies in which Rabalais led. Today, it’s estimated there are more than 500 such dead zones growing at the mouths of rivers and estuaries around the globe.

Plastic Garbage Patches: California marine biologist Captain Charles Moore is credited with alerting the world to the growing problem of those sizable patches of plastic waste swirling around ocean gyres. In 1997, while returning to southern California after a sailing race to Hawaii, he caught sight of trash floating in one of the most remote regions of the ocean. The floating junk heap was labeled “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” by a colleague and despite Moore’s efforts to suggest different metaphors—“a swirling sewer,” “superhighway of trash”—it has stuck. Today, five similar trash-filled gyres have been identified in varied parts of the planet’s one ocean. Moore and his Algalita Foundation continue to sail the Pacific, looking for more junk and solutions to the growing contamination.