Susan Solomon, saving the atmospheric ozone

It is common knowledge today that the chemical pollution of the environment led to the destruction of the earth’s atmospheric ozone layer, creating a hole that compromised its role of absorbing harmful UV light from the sun, which could have damaged exposed life forms near the surface. In this article, DiscovHER brings you the story of Susan Solomon, the atmospheric scientist who is best known for her pioneering role in the international scientific community’s efforts to discover the cause of depleted atmospheric ozone in the Antarctic.

Susan Solomon’s interest in science began when she was a child, thanks to her love of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Though she was initially drawn to the sea because of this, her interest eventually switched to the atmosphere after she earned third place in a national science contest by measuring the amount of oxygen in various gaseous mixtures while still in high school. She went on to study chemistry at the Illinois Institute of Technology after which she earned a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. She then joined at NOAA’s Aeronomy Laboratory in Colorado, where she has worked ever since.

Over time, scientists observed that there had been a depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic, leading to the creation of a “hole”. Solomon’s theoretical research showed that reactions of man-made chlorine compounds occurring on the surface of polar stratospheric clouds could play a defining role in forming the Antarctic ozone hole. Based on these theories, she decided to carry out research that would provide proof that this was indeed the cause. Therefore, in 1986 and 1987 she led expeditions to Antarctica and personally carried out the first observations of chlorine dioxide, which showed that its abundance there was about 100 times greater than the amount predicted. This finding provided the first direct evidence that pointed to chlorine chemistry as the cause of the Antarctic ozone depletion. The presence of CFC-chemicals in the atmosphere is now undisputedly considered to be the cause of holes in the ozone layer, all thanks to her work.

However, while this is her main achievement, Solomon’s research has extended to various aspects of the stratosphere, and she is considered one of the scientists who has made the most theoretical and practical contributions to the study of the stratosphere. In addition, she has been very keen throughout her scientific career to use her credentials to influence public policy in a positive way. Among her contributions to this is her membership to the Science Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that advises governments and industry on climate-related issues, and of which she is a co-chair. She has also come up with new ways to evaluate the potential for ozone depletion which strengthen the understanding and validity of these key indices. She also frequently leads international assessments of the ozone and climate, which are used by global leaders as the scientific foundation for their policies on how to protect the Earth's ozone layer and climate.

Her work in this segment of research has also earned her many accolades, including the National Medal of Science, the Montreal Protocol Tenth Anniversary Award from the United Nations Environment Programme, and the prestigious Blue Planet Prize in 2004. In addition to these, she is also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the European Academy of Sciences, and the Academy of Sciences of France.

As we grapple with the consequences of climate change, Susan Solomon’s contributions to this field deserve to be honored now more than ever, since without them, we would have been even worse off.

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