Joseph Farman, 82; recorded hole in ozone layer

NEW YORK — Joseph Farman, 82, a British researcher whose single-minded and at times officially derided study of atmospheric changes in the Antarctic established the existence of a hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole approximately the size of the United States — one of the most important environmental discoveries of the 20th century — died May 11 in Cambridge, England.

His death was announced by the British Antarctic Survey, the governmental agency for which he worked from 1956 until his retirement in 1990.


Mr. Farman studied the Antarctic atmosphere for 25 years, never expecting momentous findings to emerge from his data, colleagues said. But his commitment to the prosaic first principles of data collection, they said, in the remotest outpost of the scientific world, produced discoveries unimagined by other scientists and overlooked by orbiting satellites.

When he began collecting ozone readings in 1957 as a young geophysicist at the Halley Bay research base in Antarctica, scientists had already come to understand that ozone was a pollutant when clumped in high concentrations near the ground and a vital shield when concentrated in the upper atmosphere, absorbing the sun’s most perilous ultraviolet rays.

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After 1974, when two American scientists, Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland, proved that chlorofluorocarbons, commonly used in aerosol spray cans and refrigeration, could destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere, the United States and a few other countries began regulating their use and scrutinizing the ozone readings already being collected by NASA satellites.

But Mr. Farman refused to stop making ground-level readings, despite his superiors’ questions about their usefulness, and despite his lack of standing in the field of ozone research. He did not have a PhD, and his primary work was in meteorological science. His dedication, as much to the principle of scientific record-keeping as to ozone study, would make him something of a working-class hero among scientists.

Mr. Farman left the Antarctic station in 1959 to assume management duties for the survey in Britain, but he delegated scientists there to continue his work through the 1960s and ’70s. His insistence was met with forbearance by his superiors until Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1980, demanding spending cuts from every government agency.


Mr. Farman recalled budget-cutters in his office telling him: Your ozone records show little change over the last 25 years; the ozone problem is under control now; the Americans are tracking all this with their orbiting satellites; and there is no point in our doing it too.

About a year later, in 1982, Mr. Farman collected Antarctic ozone readings so radically different from anything seen that he assumed that his 25-year-old Dobson meters had given out. He ordered new ones. (The devices calculate ozone thickness by measuring the amount of ultraviolet radiation penetrating the atmosphere.)

The new machines produced results more startling. ‘‘It just went haywire,’’ he said.

Though ozone depletion is said to have leveled off in the early 2000s, the effects of long-living, ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere will continue for an additional 80 to 100 years, by most accounts.

He leaves his wife, Paula.