Saving a Planet in Peril

During nearly three decades as a government scientist, Susan Solomon has engaged in pioneering research on the causes of the Antarctic ozone hole, identified the chemicals contributing to this serious environmental problem, and made significant findings that have advanced public understanding about global warming.

Working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Colorado, Solomon was the first to theorize that chlorofluorocarbons could play a defining role in forming the ozone hole. She then led expeditions to Antarctica in 1986 and 1987, where her key measurements produced the first evidence of chlorine chemistry as the cause.

Her work altered the course of atmospheric research and served as a foundation for the Montreal Protocol. This momentous international agreement led to the protection of the ozone layer by regulating the production of manmade compounds that destroy it.

The ozone layer is critical because it is the atmospheric protective shield that absorbs more than 90 percent of the sun's high frequency ultraviolet light, which can adversely affect the ecosystem and cause skin cancer, cataracts and other serious health problems.

“People of this world took action about a layer they cannot see, dealing with radiation that they cannot see, based on science. The key was Susan’s explanation on how ozone depletion was caused,” said A.R. Ravishankara, director of NOAA’s chemical sciences division.

But this groundbreaking work was just a start for Solomon.

Her research provided policymakers with information on the “climate friendliness” of different gases being used in consumer and industrial products, and paved the way for informed choices about new substances for cooling, fire protection and other applications.

Solomon also led another breakthrough study in 2009, this time focusing on global warming. Her detailed research demonstrated how changes in surface temperature, rainfall and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped.

This study provided solid evidence that current choices regarding carbon dioxide emissions will have legacies affecting the climate that will irreversibly change the planet.

“She’s done some amazing cutting-edge research,” said Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. “Susan’s work is in service to society.”
Solomon also has been at the forefront of the scientific community’s efforts to deliver relevant science about climate change to those who must make difficult policy decisions.

From 2002 to 2008, she co-chaired the prestigious United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a working group on science.

This group’s work culminated in the report, “Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis,” a document that provided the largest and most detailed summary of climate change science to date. It involved 152 lead authors from more than 30 countries and concluded that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” and that the increase in global average temperature rise in the past 50 years is very likely due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

This report has become one of the most influential scientific documents in recent memory, helping the world understand the severity of global warming.

Daniel Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary for environment at the State Department, said Solomon ran an objective and open process as co-lead of the U.N. working group, and did a great service for the country and the world.

“She insisted on an objective focus on the science and didn’t allow political or policy issues to intervene,” he said. “Because of her personal integrity and her commitment to running an honest process, she’s highly respected.”

Solomon said that climate change has “enormous implications,” and it was important to maintain the highest level of integrity.

“The only way to do the type of science that I do is keeping your science separate from your personal political opinions,” said Solomon. “The distinction between what you know and what you believe is so important. Our value to society as scientists is preserved by keeping those two things separate.”

Solomon also said she believes it is “important for scientists to communicate their findings to the public and to policymakers so that it can be part of the input for society to decide what it wants to do.”

Looking at her career in perspective, Solomon said she feels “very lucky to be able to work on two issues—ozone depletion and climate change.” She said her motivation all these years has been “the opportunity to do research in the interest of the American public by understanding the environment and helping us all make informed choices.”

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