January 11, 2011

OH OH! Redux II

Filed under: Health Effects, Ozone

About 10 years ago, Science magazine published a paper by Ronald Prinn and colleagues with the finding that the atmospheric concentrations of the hydroxyl radical (OH-) were declining, with the authors pointing squarely to anthropogenic global warming as a likely cause. As the hydroxyl radical is particularly good as scrubbing some forms of pollution (like low level ozone) from the atmosphere, the implication was that anthropogenic global warming was inhibiting the atmosphere’s cleansing processes.

Horror, horror!

And as you could imagine, the news media eagerly ran with the story.

At the time, we at World Climate Report were a bit skeptical (big surprise there!) and pointed out that if you got into the nitty-gritty of the research results, the actual story they told was a lot more uncertain than was being portrayed—with the overarching implication that any link to anthropogenic global warming was being grossly overstated, to say the least.

For yucks, you can check out what we had to say back then in these two articles from our archives:

OH OH! Another Satanic Gas!


Now, a decade later, Science magazine is having another shot at getting it right.

The current issue of Science contains an article by Stephen Montzka and colleagues who have once again examined the recent history of the atmospheric concentrations of the hydroxyl radical, and in this case, determined that there has not been any overall change—and that the earlier fluctuations were a result of inadequate data. The new picture painted by Montzka et al. is quite different from the earlier one described by Prinn et al. (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Various determinations of the time history of atmospheric concentrations of the hydroxyl radical—the most recent determinations are represented by the colored lines and circles, the one presented by Prinn et al. is represented by the dashed line (adapted from Montzka et al., 2011).

The Montzka et al. study overturns another aspect of the “fragile earth” fallacy, in this case, as it pertains to the hydroxyl radical and the atmosphere’s cleansing abilities.

According to their press release:

An international, NOAA-led research team took a significant step forward in understanding the atmosphere’s ability to cleanse itself of air pollutants and some other gases, except carbon dioxide. The issue has been controversial for many years, with some studies suggesting the self-cleaning power of the atmosphere is fragile and sensitive to environmental changes, while others suggest greater stability. And what researchers are finding is that the atmosphere’s self-cleaning capacity is rather stable.

This is certainly good news.

And the other bit of good news, is that the press is also picking up this story and noting that it has overturned some previous-held notions (albeit perhaps too gleeful in pointing out that carbon dioxide concentrations are not impacted by the hydroxyl radical, see, here).

We note that the current press coverage righting the previous wrong was absent a few years ago when Ronald Prinn himself published an update to his 2001 Science paper—the update showed that the hydroxyl radical had completely recovered from the decline he reported in Science a few years earlier (although it certainly didn’t escape our eagle eyes).

The difference this time? The Montzka et al. study was published in Science, and Prinn’s update was published in Geophysical Research Letters. This is a reminder that the publicity machine at Science (and Nature) is always in full gear and is formidable (although the veracity of their articles is no more guaranteed than any other journals, and, in fact, is probably even less since they strive to publish findings that are attention grabbing and thus help to sell their magazine).

And this also serves as a reminder (along with a whole lot of other we-told-you-so articles) that what you read in these pages should not be summarily dismissed just because you heard it here—despite many folks’ desires to the contrary.


Montzka, S. A., et al., 2011. Small interannual variability of global atmospheric hydroxyl. Science, 331, 67-69.

Prinn, R.G., et al., 2001. Evidence for substantial variations of atmospheric hydroxyl radicals in the past two decades. Science, 292, 1882-1888.

Prinn, R.G., et al., 2005. Evidence for variability of atmospheric hydroxyl radicals over the past quarter century. Geophysical Research Letters, 32, L07809, doi: 10.1029/2004GL022228.

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