Here’s How Star Wars & Star Trek Saved the Ozone Layer
This is the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. Its size changes seasonally and varies from year to year.
But the the trend is clear:
The ozone is returning and the hole is shrinking. And it could be entirely gone in next few decades.
I remember when I was kid. The hole in the ozone layer was a huge deal.
So just how did we fix it?
Well, it was the result of what is probably the most successful climate agreement ever ratified. But we also got a little help from the crew of the Starship Enterprise and a band of rebels from a galaxy far far away.
The ozone layer is invisible. It lies about 12–19 miles above my head in a part of the sky called the stratosphere. Even though I can’t see it and it is just a thin layer of oxygen molecules, it protects all life on the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
So when scientists discovered a hole in the ozone, it was a big deal.
In the early 70s, researchers Frank Rowland and Mario Molina discovered that CFCs remained in the atmosphere much longer than previously thought.
CFC stands for chlorofluorocarbon. They have been used in refrigeration and air conditioning and as a propellant in aerosol cans. There are no natural sources of CFCs. They are entirely manmade.
Since Rowland and Molina discovered that CFCs had a potential lifespan of 50–100 years, almost all the CFCs released since they were first manufactured in the 1930s still remained in the atmosphere. Rowland and Molina then hypothesized that the decay of these long-lived molecules could lead to the depletion of the ozone layer.
The CFC industry pushed hard against their hypothesis, calling it nonsense, and fighting to discredit Rowland and Molina’s statements.
But only 3 years later, The United States National Academy of Sciences confirmed Rowland and Molina’s hypothesis and released a report detailing evidence of a depleting ozone layer caused by CFCs and other manmade chemicals.
The ozone layer is important.
As I said, it blocks UV radiation. Besides giving you a nice tan, UV rays are also responsible for sun burns, cataracts, and skin cancer. Not only that but they’re harmful to crops and marine life.
But as I said, the ozone layer is invisible. It works its magic protecting us without anyone being the wiser.
And so its disappearance could go easily go unnoticed.
The process that leads to its depletion is complicated and relegated to high level chemistry laboratories for the most part. And the chemical agents responsible for its depletion were crucial to a multibillion dollar industry.
So to save the ozone layer, these climate scientists had their work cut out for them.
By the 1980s, they had proven that the depletion of the ozone layer was happening. Now they had get their message out to a largely scientifically illiterate public.
They needed a way to communicate the urgency of the situation and to do that they basically needed to teach everyone how the ozone layer worked. But they risked losing the public’s attention if they made the message too complicated or too technical. So they needed to simplify the science. They needed an analogy a lot of people could relate to.
Here’s where Star Wars and Star Trek come in.
The idea of a shield that protects your spaceship from space debris or laser blasts was a well-worn trope of science fiction by the time scientists had discovered the depletion of the ozone layer. And by far the most popular sci-fi franchises in the world at the time (and probably still are) were Star Trek and Star Wars.
Even if you’d never seen an episode of Star Trek or never watched a Star Wars movie, they were so ingrained within the popular culture that it was pretty much impossible not to be somewhat familiar with them.
So if you know anything about these series at all, you know that they take place in spaceships and these spaceships often fire rays at each other. To defend against these harmful rays, the spaceships have invisible shields. As the shield took fire, its strength was depleted — not unlike the Earth’s Ozone layer when faced with harmful UV radiation.
So the scientific community began comparing the ozone layer to an invisible shield that protected the earth from UV rays.
And it worked.
The messaging was so effective, people voluntarily gave up hair spray and aerosol cans before any widespread regulatory measures were in place.
It wasn’t just the shield analogy from Star Wars and Star Trek that made people concerned about the ozone layer.
The removal of a cancerous skin tumor from then President Ronald Reagan gave the prospect of increased skin cancer due to amplified levels of UV radiation a higher public profile.
But when an expedition to the South Pole confirmed the existence of a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica the public pressure to do something about it reached fever pitch.
To all the people who had absorbed the sci-fi analogy, it was like we had discovered that shields of the Starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon were failing in the middle of a space battle.
In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was ratified by almost every nation in the world. They agreed to freeze CFC production at current levels and cut those levels in half by the end of the twentieth century.
The ozone layer stabilized in the 90s and recovered in the 2000s. It is expected to be at pre-1980 levels by 2070.
This is why the Montreal Protocol has been called the most successful climate agreement ever.
While the real heroes here are the scientists who did the work to prove that the ozone was really disappearing, without Star Trek and Star Wars to help the general public understand the dangers of losing the ozone layer, the efforts of these scientists might not have been as effective in swaying public opinion. Complain as much you want about the scientific inaccuracy of Star Trek or Star Wars, their ability to make complex scientific ideas resonate with the public is unparalleled.
So never underestimate the power of popular culture.
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