Letter from Chile

By Bruce Gary

16th September 1987

I sit here in front of my computer screen trying to remember how to use WordStar in order to write something about where I am and why. There's a constant buzz from the inverter, on the floor, as it converts 220 volt power to the 120 volts my computer needs. Diskettes are scattered over the desks of the hotel room, waiting for additional "reduction." Outside the window, on my right, I look down 7 stories to a plaza, with a statue of Magellan at its center. He's looking in my direction, at the strait bearing his name. The strait runs north/south, and can be seen a few blocks away out a back window of the hotel. Looking beyond the statue, to the east, I see mountains. They are partly covered with snow, which accumulates, and melts, and accumulates, with the daily variation of weather. The mountains are much lower in altitude than the Andes, to the north.

Those jagged mountains aren't visible from my window, but only the low ones, that lead northward toward the airport - the airport that is the lifeline of Punta Arenas in the winter. Since the Pan American Highway is impassable at places between here and Santiago everything comes and goes from this city through either the shipping port or the airport.

The airport has two sides: a public side and a military side. It is forbidden to take pictures from either side, so we all know which side operates with the consent of the other. Near the sign at the entrance that says "Republic of Chile" is that other less welcoming entrance. I have a badge that says "Fuerza Aerea de Chile; Evento Especiales: Proyecto Ozono, Estados Unidos, Bruce Gary." When I pull up to the gate, one of the many young soldiers comes to my lowered car window, and as he leans over to see this badge, I squirm as I notice, again, his Israeli machine gun inadvertently pointing into the car in some direction that always seems too close to my face. We have been cautioned to not complain about things, because we are guests in the country and we remain here to conduct our business at their pleasure. The dirt road beyond the gate is like all neglected dirt roads in the world; except that the large chock holes are filled with muddy water that is half frozen. After a quarter mile, past barracks we're not supposed to notice, and a hanger with French Mirage jet fighters, which we also are not supposed to notice, we arrive at a large hangar with lots of cars parked to one side. The 10 or 20 cars indicate that a couple dozen of my colleagues are working in the hangar.


Photo: Bruce Gary

The beautiful ER-2 that is "saving the world."

Walking past the armed soldier at the hangar entrance we encounter inside a beautiful sight. Airplanes are always beautiful to me, but this one is special. The white wings stretch a third of a football field, tip to lumbering tip. The fuselage is dominated by one very large tubular jet engine, with intakes up front on the two sides. Above the intakes is a small pocket of a place for the lone pilot to sit. And it is with this beautiful white airplane that we shall save the Earth!

We joke about "saving the earth." Everybody seems to take our mission seriously. But we are scientists, and it is axiomatic that scientists do whatever they do in the mode of a child at play. I have wondered what some of the "locals" think of us. In restaurants we are always joking and laughing; while everyone else is so serious. I know they're not serious because of their concern about the ozone layer; but they might have expected that we, who have come to this "Ends of the Earth" little town on an urgent and much publicized mission to investigate why the world is unexpectedly losing its life-protecting layer of stratospheric ozone, that we surely must be concerned and in a serious state of mind. But we're not, it seems. It's "business as usual." And since we enjoy our work, we are "at play as usual."

But things aren't quite what they seem. Look in front of the white U-2 plane in the hangar and there are about 15 work areas, one for each team that has an instrument on the airplane. And there are people working in those areas almost 24 hours per day. Consider that we've been here 35 days, so far, and the others are like me in having worked approximately 12 hours per day for 34 of those 35 days. (My one day "off" was due to a sickness which is making the rounds of the project personnel.)

The truth is that it does matter to us, this problem we're trying to solve. Each instrument is unique, and contributes something of importance to the endeavor. And each of us wants to "deliver" on the promise we have made on behalf of our instrument. Some are clearly more important than others, such as the Harvard Chlorine Monoxide Instrument. My instrument is mostly supportive, as it provides information on the meteorological setting in which the other instruments are taking their air sample measurements.

This beautiful airplane is perhaps the most instrument-laden air measuring craft in the world. It is also the world's highest-flying meteorology research airplane, as it regularly attains altitudes of 70,000 feet - except over Antarctica, where, we have learned, the cold air limits it to 67,000 feet. Today's science flight will be the 9th of the ozone mission. We fly as far south as safety permits, which is latitude 72 South, near the base of the Palmer Peninsula. This is well into the region known as the "Antarctic Ozone Hole."

There is a news blackout until the press conference at the end of the mission, about September 30. I am not supposed to write you that we have flown into the ozone hole on several occasions. I am also not supposed to write you about concentrations of key chemical constituents, so I won't. Or a new theory that may explain the process of formation and subsequent dynamic "battering away" of the "hole," so I won't. I am also not able to say whether an answer has been formulated concerning the "culprit role" of chloroflourocarbons (of which Freon is the most notable), so I won't. But the "bottom line" question is, well ...

This remote anomaly over the South Pole has its antipode at the North. It is smaller, but growing. We are likely to be deployed to Alaska, or Norway, in 18 months, to study this second "opening." It is like a race: we discover an opening, and rush to glean insight that can be used to "patch it up," but then another hole appears! The next "opening" could actually be a spreading of the two holes, exposing us all! That leads us to the "bottom line" question: is the Antarctic Ozone Hole a mere portent of irreversible global erosion which is too late to stop and which could threaten most Earthly life forms?

And that's why we work 12-hour days, and leave our comfortable California homes and families for a 7-week assignment at the world's southernmost city, on the edge of a Tierra del Fuegan winter. In some sense that airport where the beautiful white plane thunders into the Antarctic sky is the World's lifeline.

I'll be driving out there when I finish this letter, for the plane is due back shortly, and my instrument will have data that will need to be analyzed. Now, as I gaze out the window at Magellan, I see that it is raining. Spring is coming, and it more often rains than snows. Some school girls are kissing the foot of a statue below Magellan, which is supposed to bring good luck. I notice that my bed is made, so the maid must have come in while I was absorbed in writing. The power inverter is still buzzing on the floor. And as I stare at the computer display I realize that I have remembered how WordStar works.

[Above] is a letter I "wrote home" describing what it was like. In addition, here's a humorous exchange that Richard Denning and I had with a British reporter at the airport cafeteria one breakfast (Sep 6). We had noticed him eating there on many mornings, usually just a couple tables from ours, as if he wanted to overhear us discussing some secret finding that would be a scoop for an article. Richard and I decided to humor him by inviting him to join us at our table. Of course we didn't talk about mission discoveries, although we knew by then that CFCs were indeed responsible for the ozone hole. Instead we talked about other topics of interest, which somehow got around to animal behavior. Without thinking (consciously, at least), I told about the way a baboon who wants to join a new troop will spend days and weeks on the periphery, studying who's who within the troop, so that when the time is right he can make his entry and form an alliance with the best prospect. Immediately, it was obvious to all of us that Ian, the British reporter, was just like that peripheral baboon, and we had just invited him to make his entry to the troop. We all laughed! Ian would later join us, as part of a larger group of AAOE experimenters, for evening outings.