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Sherwood Rowland, colossus of atmospheric chemistry, dies

The researcher who convinced the world that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer has died.

F. Sherwood Rowland — known as ‘Sherry’ — died 10 March at the age of 84, according to a statement from the University of California (UC) in Irvine, where he was one of the founding faculty members.

Rowland won the 1995 Nobel prize for chemistry along with his former postdoctoral researcher Mario Molina and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen for work on how ozone is created and destroyed in the atmosphere.

“He saved the world from a major catastrophe: never wavering in his commitment to science, truth and humanity, and did so with integrity and grace,” said Kenneth Janda, the physical sciences dean at UC Irvine, in a statement. “We have lost our finest friend and mentor.”

Writing in 1995, Rowland noted that once he heard about the detection of CFCs in the atmosphere, he realized these molecules would not be inert in the long term and he set out to determine their fate. In 1973 he was joined by Molina in this endeavour.

“Within three months, Mario and I realized that this was not just a scientific question, challenging and interesting to us, but a potentially grave environmental problem involving substantial depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer,” he noted.

This finding was reported in Nature, and in the face of some scepticism and objections from industry, a global ban on CFCs was eventually enacted. (For more on this, see the Nature web focus on the ozone hole.)

Rowland and Molina shared the 1995 chemistry Nobel with Crutzen, whose work demonstrated the role of nitrogen oxides in atmospheric ozone chemistry.

Rowland enjoyed a long scientific career after his CFC work, and was researching air pollution following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 as well as methane and greenhouse gases.

“We really sort of stumbled onto a problem of global proportions,” said Molina. “His impact and his legacy are extraordinary. He was a superb scientist, and he worked with a very important problem affecting society.”

Image: photo from UCI, Steve Zylius / University Communications


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