Evidence for Substantial Variations of Atmospheric Hydroxyl Radicals in the Past Two Decades

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Science, Volume 292, Issue 5523, p.1882 - 1888 (2001)


0036-8075, 1095-9203




The hydroxyl radical (OH) is the dominant oxidizing chemical in the atmosphere. It destroys most air pollutants and many gases involved in ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect. Global measurements of 1,1,1-trichloroethane (CH3CCl3, methyl chloroform) provide an accurate method for determining the global and hemispheric behavior of OH. Measurements show that CH3CCl3 levels rose steadily from 1978 to reach a maximum in 1992 and then decreased rapidly to levels in 2000 that were lower than the levels when measurements began in 1978. Analysis of these observations shows that global OH levels were growing between 1978 and 1988, but the growth rate was decreasing at a rate of 0.23 ± 0.18% year−2, so that OH levels began declining after 1988. Overall, the global average OH trend between 1978 and 2000 was −0.64 ± 0.60% year−1. These variations imply important and unexpected gaps in current understanding of the capability of the atmosphere to cleanse itself.