Environment Canada Scientists Changed the World

Yet federal ozone research is in a highly precarious position, with global implications.

The Toronto Star’s Kate Allen has posted a wonderful story about the invention of the UV index. The index – which raised awareness around the world about the need to use sunscreen and hats to prevent skin damage from UV exposure – turned 25 years old on Saturday. It is a story of outstanding Canadian innovation that later devolved into one of the Harper government’s greatest debacles. In this article I provide some additional details in support of Allen’s story.

Tom McElroy, co-inventor of the UV Index, with instruments on the roof of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s office in Toronto. (Image Source)
Tom McElroy, co-inventor of the UV Index, with instruments on the roof of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s office in Toronto. (Image Source)

The UV index is by now so ubiquitous that we sometimes forget that somebody must have invented it. It was the brainchild of three ozone scientists from Environment Canada (EC, now Environment and Climate Change Canada): James Kerr, Tom McElroy and David Wardle. The three scientists also invented the Brewer Spectrophotometer which is used around the world to monitor the stratospheric ozone layer that protects us from much of the sun’s UV. Brewer measurements are used for Canada’s UV index forecasts.

As Allen explains, when the UV index was introduced in 1992, EC

“…hoped Canadians would use [it] to avoid sunburns and the attendant risk of skin cancer.”

Did they succeed? Remarkably so.

In 1998, EC commissioned a study by Marbek Resource Consultants to determine the impacts of their ozone research program. Marbek found that in Canada during the period through 2060,

“The UV Index is expected to prevent approximately 57,000 cases of non-melanoma cancer, 1,840 cases of melanoma cancer; and 590 deaths.”

They also found that

“… for each dollar [spent on ozone research at Environment Canada], Canadians received the following quantifiable benefits:

  • $7.90 in health benefits
  • $3.03 in environmental benefits
  • $1.94 in economic benefits."

This is a remarkable impact in Canada alone. The worldwide impact can be expected to be much higher. In the article, Prof. McElroy commented

“In a sense, we managed to put a hat on everybody in the world.”

Indeed, the invention of the UV index is ranked number 11 on the Weather Network’s list of the 100 Biggest Weather Moments

Unfortunately, in recent years EC’s ozone group has fallen on hard times. By 2004, funding cutbacks were taking their toll. In a monograph entitled Beyond the Breaking Point, a who’s who of leading atmospheric scientists at the time wrote

“As a result of cost-cutting pressures, MSC’s ability to sustain leading-edge research is deteriorating.”

MSC is the Meteorological Branch of Canada, part of EC.

Cuts to ozone research was one of the issues that galvanized scientists at 2012’s Death of Evidence march on Parliament Hill. (Image source)
Cuts to ozone research was one of the issues that galvanized scientists at 2012’s Death of Evidence march on Parliament Hill. (Image source)

In 2011 I sounded the alarm that Harper government cutbacks imperilled important programs that protect the health and safety of Canadians. Initially, Canada’s ozone balloon monitoring network was slated to be shut down, despite the fact it had helped discover the first-ever Arctic ozone hole that spring. Intense pressure from the public and international scientists forced the government to back down. Nevertheless, the ozone research group (code-named ARQX) was disbanded, as exposed in a riotous Environment Committee meeting on Parliament Hill in 2012. That same year, the scientific management of the World Ozone and Ultraviolet-radiation Data Centre (WOUDC) was eliminated and replaced by Information Technology specialists.

The situation continued to deteriorate after 2012, and remains poor to this day. In my interview with Kate Allen last week, I showed her WOUDC’s graph of data statistics for the Brewer Spectrophotometer, which I have reproduced below.

WOUDC’s Brewer Spectrophotometer data statistics. Click to enlarge.
WOUDC’s Brewer Spectrophotometer data statistics. Click to enlarge.

You can see a steady drop in the archive’s data beginning in 2012, right when the changes were made to WOUDC. This is not a coincidence.

Digging deeper into the data shows that EC has not submitted any of its Brewer data to WOUDC since 2014. The instruments are still functioning, but the data are not being subjected to the scientific review necessary for inclusion in the database. This is symptomatic of a critical lack of scientific personnel at EC. It is likely going to take some time to repair the damage done by the Harper government.

Of three scientists who invented the UV index and Brewer Spectrophotometer, two (Kerr, Wardle) are fully retired and one (McElroy) retired from EC to become a professor at York University. None were replaced.

Ozone research at EC is in a highly precarious position, with implications for global ozone monitoring efforts. More attention to this problem by the Trudeau government is warranted.