Joe Farman: Scientist who first uncovered the hole in the ozone layer

 

Joe Farman was a British physicist who came to prominence when he alerted the world to the man-made hole in the ozone layer. It became widely accepted as one of the biggest environmental and scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

Farman and his fellow researchers, Brian Gardiner and Jon Shanklin, caused a sensation when they published their findings in Nature in May 1985, and caused major embarrassment at Nasa, who had been monitoring the earth's atmosphere extensively with their satellites but had found nothing. In fact Farman's study nearly didn't saw the light of day. The head of his division had tried to suppress the paper, writing to the Meteorological Office to say: "It shouldn't be published because it'd be very embarrassing if their inferences were wrong."

The study by Farman and his colleagues revealed that levels of ozone above the Antarctic had fallen by about 40 per cent between 1975 and 1984. They demonstrated that the hole was not a natural occurrence but the result of reactions triggered by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the stratosphere. The discovery of the ozone hole over the South Pole led to the 1989 Montreal Protocol, the international agreement intended to control and phase out the global production of CFCs and other ozone-damaging chemicals, which were commonly used as refrigerants, spray-can propellants and solvents.

The hypothesis of ozone depletion had been put forward in the 1970s but had been dismissed by Nasa scientists after satellites had failed to substantiate the theory with any evidence. Farman had been collecting atmospheric data from the British station at Halley Bay, Antarctica since 1957, with teams sent annually to measure ozone levels and concentrations of trace gases like CFCs. Poorly funded, they relied on old-fashioned devices such as weather balloons and the Dobson meter, a rudimentary ozone-measuring machine which worked well only when wrapped in a duvet.

In 1982 Farman's ozone reading showed a dramatic dip. At first he was sceptical and thought there must be an instrument malfunction, given the severe cold and the fact that his Dobson meter was old and ground-based with only one data point, the part of the atmosphere directly above it. Furthermore, he reasoned, Nasa, with satellites collecting atmospheric data from around the world, had reported no anomalies. Farman ordered a new instrument for the next year's measurement.

The following year the dip was even bigger. "It just went haywire," Farman recalled. "The levels really fell away." Almost half the ozone layer seemed to have vanished and so he checked data as far back as 1977, but then believed the discrepancy to be above Halley Bay only, leaving other areas unaffected. The following year he and his team took measurements 1,000 miles north-west of Halley Bay. There, too, there was a large decline. Farman decided it was time to publish his data.

Much to Nasa's chagrin, satellite data had been gathered supporting Farman's findings but had been overlooked. Rechecking their data they discovered a gigantic hole the size of the US and growing.

Born near Norwich in 1930, Joseph Charles Farman was the younger of two children. His father was a self-employed builder, his mother a nurse. He showed an aptitude for mathematics and worked privately with the headmaster, while also enjoying improvising with radio equipment on Scout trips and reading the popular science of the era. He also enjoyed tending the family greenhouse, a pursuit that endured into adulthood.

Educated at Norwich School, Farman, a self-confessed "naughty" boy, excelled in science and won a scholarship to read Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, going up in 1951 after 18 months' National Service in the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers. He later recalled being inspired by a lecture given by the headmaster's brother, who had been on the British Greenland Expeditions of 1935-36 and 1937.

Following graduation in 1953 and having then spent three years working on guided missiles for de Havilland at Hatfield, Farman was appointed as a scientific officer at the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey, the predecessor of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), based in Cambridge. He spent two winters in the Argentine Islands, Antarctica and served as Base Commander from 1958-59.

He became head of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey Physics Unit at the University of Edinburgh in 1969, and returned to BAS as Head of the Physics Section in 1976 in order to focus on Antarctic ozone monitoring as part of BAS's response to growing concern about potential environmental damage. His final research trip to Antarctica was in 1990, shortly before he retired. Thereafter, he cycled daily to work in Cambridge University's Department of Chemistry, and was also a fellow of Corpus Christi. He later carried out research as a consultant to the European Ozone Research Coordinating Unit.

After his ozone discovery, the generally mild-mannered, pipe-smoking Farman became an energetic advocate for environmental concerns, lambasting governments for their naive approach to scientific research. "Too much money is going into expensive climate modelling computers, and not enough into basic observational science," he said. "There are so many variables that computers can't possibly forecast what will happen exactly with the Earth's climate." More recent figures suggest that the ozone layer is slowly repairing itself, but will not return to its early 1980s state until about 2070, due to the long lifetimes of the CFCs already in the atmosphere.

Farman received a number of awards including the Society of Chemical Industry's Environment Medal, the Charles Chree Medal and Prize, and membership of the UN Environment Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honour.

Joseph Farman, physicist: born Norwich 7 August 1930; OBE 1988, CBE 2000; married 1971 Paula Bowyer; died Cambridge 11 May 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power