Ozone: Scientist seeks to preserve earth's atmosphere

James M. Russell III has always had his head in the clouds, but in a practical sense: He aims to help preserve the future survival and health of mankind.

The regional representative for the Church in the Richmond and Roanoke Virginia regions, Elder Russell is a scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center and is principal investigator on a project aimed at safeguarding the ozone layer in the earth's atmosphere.The ozone layer is a protective blanket that shields mankind from the sun's harmful radiation. Research in recent years, including that conducted by Elder Russell, has indicated an alarming depletion in the ozone layer.

"The ozone layer is critically important," he explained in a telephone interview. "If we didn't have the ozone, we would develop mutations, skin cancer, and atmospheric stability would be disrupted."

Research suggests that a decline of just 1 percent of the ozone results in a 2 percent increase in incidence of skin cancer, he noted.

As a result of scientific findings, measures have already been taken to help preserve the ozone. For example, it was found years ago that certain compounds used for propellants in spray cans of household products were found to be harmful. As a result, the compounds were regulated out of existence about eight years ago, Elder Russell said.

However, evidence shows the problem is far from solved, according to Elder Russell. A recent "hole" found in the ozone layer above the earth's Antarctic region helps bear that out.

"There were expeditions to the Antarctic to make observations and test theories," Elder Russell explained. "The conclusion was that increased levels of chlorine caused the hole."

That was in 1988. Since then, scientists have observed a 6 percent reduction of ozone levels over North America in the spring and a 3-4 percent reduction in the summer.

He said the increased chlorine in the Antarctic atmosphere could only be explained as coming from mankind's use of chlorine compounds in refrigeration. The compounds are called chlorofluoromethanes (CFM).

"All refrigerators and all air conditioners use CFMs as a heat transfer agent," he explained. "When these refrigerators develop a leak, the CFM is released as a gas into the atmosphere and rises to the stratosphere. The sun's rays break up the CFM molecule, liberating the chlorine that destroys the ozone."

Elder Russell said the manufacturer of CFMs is now working on a replacement fluid that would not be harmful to the ozone.

"The company has announced to its stockholders that it will no longer produce CFMs by the end of this decade. They have committed to changing over to some other heat transfer agent."

In addition, he said, 67 countries have agreed to cease their use of CFMs by the end of the 1990s, and a new law in the United States requires those who service air conditioners to capture the chemical and not let its gas escape into the atmosphere.

Working with eight co-investigators and an instrument consultant from various parts of the United States, Elder Russell is leading the Halogen Occulation Experiment, known by the acronymn HALOE. Its purpose is to keep watch on atmospheric changes that could be harmful to the ozone.

"Our experiment tracks the sun as it rises and sets," he explained. "We measure how much the atmosphere attenuates the sun's rays."

Through remote sensing of spectral bands in the atmosphere, the project measures space and time variations of ozone and six other gases that affect the ozone: hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, water vapor and methane.

"Hydrogen fluoride is formed only by the use of the CFMs; there is not a natural source of hydrogen fluoride that we know of," he said. "By measuring the hydrogen chloride and the hydrogen fluoride together, we can tell how important man's activities are in affecting the natural chlorine level of the atmosphere, and therefore the ozone."

A key element in the study is the HALOE satellite, which was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sept. 12 of last year. The largest atmospheric observatory ever launched, it includes a two-axis system to allow the sun to be tracked both in the azimuth and elevation directions, a sun tracker, an infrared telescope, optics and detectors mounted to a mainframe optical bench, and associated electronics packages.

How did Elder Russell, 51, become one of the world's leading ozone watchdogs?

"I have always been interested in remote sensing of the atmosphere," he said. "I went to school at the University of Michigan to become trained in that area. The reason is that I wanted to be involved in something that could be helpful to people as much as possible in a science area. I have always had a concern for the environment and what we're doing to it."

A former president for 10 years of the Newport News Virginia Stake and a former bishop in the Williamsburg and Denbigh wards in Virginia, he joined the Church in 1960 in Newport News. He is married to Jenna Rollings Russell, and they are the parents of three children: Amy Marlowe, who lives in Newport News; and David and Jennifer, who attend BYU.

His scientific perspective complements his belief in and concept of God.

"One time, I was working with my daughter," he said. "We had a lawn care business, and as we were working along one day, she asked me, as she was picking up the trash, do we have a responsibility to keep this earth clean? I said we have a great responsibility to do everything within our power to preserve the earth in the most pure state we can within our limitations. The Lord gave it to us to live on, to raise our families, to be here on this earth for our test. It's our home, and we should do all we can to keep it as clean and pure as the Lord would want it to be."

He said the presence of the ozone layer indicates a divine creation.

"There are only 10 ozone molecules for every 1 million molecules of air. It seems that in the creation process, the decision was made that we have got to have this here in order for life to exist. It's just a fascinating thing to me. We really are measuring a tenuous gas."

In an earlier interview with Virginia H. Rollings, region public affairs director, Elder Russell said: "I have been happy in my life's work. Study of our atmosphere shows that we are a part of much larger influences than we see. It seems that after other matter was in place, the Lord measured all the interactions of things here and placed between us and the sun the exact measure of ozone needed. It cannot vary without great changes for the earth. I seek after knowledge of His works." - R. Scott Lloyd

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