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Environmental Victories of the Past

Science has always fascinated me. This includes not only the ecological sciences, which I studied in school, but other endeavors, as well.

During the '30s, dust storms made life on the Great Plains difficult, to say the least.

During the '30s, dust storms made life on the Great Plains difficult, to say the least.

In the past, environmental issues have risen and presented their ominous scenarios to whoever was unfortunate enough to be at ground zero. For the most part, each problem has gone away through some sort of concerted effort by a large number of unrelated people.

For example, environmental action helped mitigate the American Dust Bowl, the deadly London smog and most recently, fluorocarbon damage to the ozone layer of Earth's atmosphere. Perhaps looking at these three past examples will help us contend with some of the global environmental challenges we're currently facing.

When done correctly, modern-day contour plowing looks something like this and will help reduce soil loss through erosion.

When done correctly, modern-day contour plowing looks something like this and will help reduce soil loss through erosion.

Dust Bowl Days

The Dust Bowl lasted from approximately 1930 to 1936, yet in those few short years, drought swept across the West, creating huge clouds of dust (known as dust storms), which traveled all the way across the country and often reached the Atlantic seaboard.

During the height of the dust storms, residents of New York City were able to tell from what part of the country the tempest originated just by observing the color of the dust clouds.

Today, Hugh Hammond Bennett is highly regarded as the father of soil conservation.

Today, Hugh Hammond Bennett is highly regarded as the father of soil conservation.

Help Is on the Way

When FDR took the office of the presidency in 1933, he brought with him a soil scientist, who would play an instrumental role in ending the environmental crisis known as the Dust Bowl.

One of President Roosevelt's first acts was to create the Soil Conversation Service. As the organization's director, he appointed Hugh Hammond Bennett, who before 1933 was a leading soil scientist at the Department of Agriculture.

Under Bennett's direction, the federal agency would go on to play a leading role in bringing about much-needed change in the way that farmers plowed their fields. Most important was contour plowing, an agricultural technique where farmers cut their plow lines perpendicular to the slope of the land.

The results were gradual, but by 1940, the devastating dust storms had dissipated, and agricultural production was returning to normal in the most-affected places. Also important in aiding the situation was the fact that the drought in the Great Plains had ceased, and rain had once again returned to the area.

Nelson's Column in London during the Great Smog of 1952

Nelson's Column in London during the Great Smog of 1952

The Dreaded London Fog

The British Isles, and most particularly the streets and alleys of London Town, have always been noted for their large number of foggy days. These common atmospheric conditions have over the years created a sometimes dreary and moody outdoor environment that permeates British life and also abounds in its literature and movies.

However, in the post-WWII years, the "thick-as-pea-soup" mist took on a sinister life of its own when it killed thousands of people due to the high concentration of toxic substances within the dense, cloudy atmosphere.

The Great Smog of 1952

The Great Smog of 1952 only lasted for five days (Dec. 5–9), but during that brief time frame, the deadly air hospitalized over 150,000 people, with death tolls possibly exceeding 12,000. Reports of fog so thick that you could not see your feet were common, with the bizarre result that a few deaths were caused by people wandering blindly into the Thames River and drowning.

Air pollution has been with us for many years and still is a major problem in large urban areas like Mexico City and Shanghai.

Air pollution has been with us for many years and still is a major problem in large urban areas like Mexico City and Shanghai.

The Cause and Cure

The principal culprit in the London smog was the gases released from coal fires, which were a common provider of winter indoor heat in Great Britain. Today, 21st-century scientists believe that during the London killer smog, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, both by-products of the coal-burning process, mixed together to form a highly-acidic sulfuric acid.

In the wake of the killer smog, the British government went on to pass some of the first air-quality control laws on the planet. The process took awhile, but in 1956, the first air quality control legislation on the planet was passed by the Parliament.

Due to continuing coal-burning issues, the Clean Air Act of 1956 was revised in 1968. Since 1968, the British have added additional air pollution laws to deal with automobile exhaust.

Air conditioners like these pictures here were once polluting the Ozone layer

Air conditioners like these pictures here were once polluting the Ozone layer

The Ozone Layer

Normally, the gaseous element, oxygen, bonds with itself to form O2, which in layman's terms, consists of two atoms of oxygen united together. O2 is common in the atmosphere, for it is the life-giving oxygen that life on earth, including mankind, is so dependent upon.

Higher up in the atmosphere, where the various gaseous elements exist in lesser concentrations, the sun's rays first encounter this mixture full force. The ultraviolet portion of sunlight is important here because when these rays strike the oxygen molecules, they cause the O2 configuration to convert to O3.

Called ozone, this O3 layer is instrumental in protecting our planet from the same dangerous ultraviolet radiation that created the unusual molecules in the first place.

Diagram of the Ozone Layer

Diagram of the Ozone Layer

A Dire Situation

Somewhere toward the end of the 20th century, atmospheric scientists began to notice that something strange was happening in the Earth's protective layer of air. Scientific observation pointed to the distinct possibility that ultraviolet rays from the sun were penetrating the atmosphere at an alarming rate.

The result here was an increase in skin cancer, especially in the lower latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere.

Further examination did not produce good news—the scientists came to the startling conclusion that the ozone layer was being depleted at a rapidly increasing rate. More research was required to determine the culprit, fluorocarbons, those complex chemicals, so vital to the air conditioning industry and also used in aerosols.

How the Ozone Layer Was Saved

The cure was not easy, for it took an intense international effort to replace just about all of the air conditioning coolants on the planet with a safer alternative that did not contain any chlorine or fluoride.

Now, some 30-plus years later, the scientific community has determined the health of the ozone layer is improving in such a way that skin cancer from ultraviolet radiation had been significantly reduced.

Oral tradition suggests that ice cover on the Great Lakes is receding.

Oral tradition suggests that ice cover on the Great Lakes is receding.

The Next Challenge

Like "the weather," "global warming" is something that everybody talks about, but nobody does anything about. For years, this attitude has permeated our culture, but as time goes on and surface temperatures on planet Earth appear to be increasing with each summer, more and more people seem inclined to believe that our planet is indeed warming.

Instead of looking at atmospheric data, many scientists are focusing on the temperature changes in the oceanic environment, as well as large bodies of fresh water such as the Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada. Two thirds of our planet is covered by water and by its nature, this precious liquid has a latent capacity to hold heat.

However, with this issue, establishing quantitative data is only the beginning, as finding a way to reverse the warming of our waters may prove to be our biggest challenge of all.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Harry Nielsen