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Has UV Solar Radiation Increased by 1,000% In A Couple Of Decades?

Updated on July 4, 2009

UV radiation reaching the surface of the Earth varies significantly from place to place and even from hour to hour. Although there have been various sporadic UV measurements conducted throughout the latter half of the 20th century, satellite UV measurements have only been conducted since 1978, thus there simply is no reliable long term UV data available prior to that date. Thus, anyone claiming that the amount of UV reaching the surface of the planet prior to 1978 is such and such, is simply lying. Regardless, there are various sources which claim that UV radiation was fairly muted from approximately 1960 to 1980, when it then began to increase.

The amount of increase of UV-A and UV-B radiation around the world has been claimed to total approximately 7% since 1980, and there is sufficient hard data to back up this claim, so let's accept it.

The effects of UV-A and UV-B on human skin are not necessarily linear. 7% more radiation will not automatically lead to 7% greater impact on the dermal layer. However, it still has to have some level of correlation and it's quite unlikely that a 7% increase would double the deleterious radiation effects on the skin. So let's be more than generous and allow that a 7% increase in UV radiation will cause 20% more damage, or about three times to the ratio of the radiation increase itself.

Therefore, if you exposed skin to the typical UV-A and UV-B at the same latitude on the same day in 1980 and then today, you'd expect that there would be 20% more skin damage in the form of sunburn, etc.

That figure does seem to jibe to some degree with the increase in skin cancers. In the last seven years, skin cancer rates are up 46% in Britain, 42% in Australia, and as much as 50% in young Caucasian women in the United States.

OK, then, let's take it one step further. Let's assume that 7% more radiation causes 50% more damage. It's a bit of a difficult statistic to swallow, but let's continue to be generous with our suspension of disbelief.

Now let's take the example of a human guinea pig to run a sunlight exposure experiment. Let's see... who shall we use... ok... how about Hal?

You see, Hal spent every single sunny daylight hour every single summer in the swimming pool of his house when he was growing up. In those days, people rode dinosaurs to work and cooked brontosaurus burgers on the BBQ, so it's not like we had even heard of sunscreen or the need for it. When it was sunny, we'd go outside. I never remember wearing a "wide brimmed hat" or any of the other accutrements which seem to be de rigeur these days when venturing outdoors. I wore a speedo and a smile. That was it.

Therefore, starting around the end of May and all the way up to the beginning of September, if it was sunny outdoors, I would be out there. In the pool, out of the pool, but never in the shade for more than a minute or so.

Let's do some calculations:

The period of time in question is 15 weeks, or 105 days.

About 15 days were washouts, leaving 90 days.

The location was southern Ontario, around 43 degrees of latitude, so the average duration of the daylight hours in the summer season is 12.

Therefore, we have 1,080 hours of sun exposure per year. Let's allow for a few pee breaks and cut it down to 1,000 hours.

I lived in that house with that pool for 12 years.

Total: 12,000 hours of sun exposure on my skin.

During those 12,000 hours I got about half a dozen sunburns that led to some minor peeling total. Nothing else.

Therefore, we can estimate that approximately 2,000 hours of sun exposure would result in one fairly minor sunburn on my skin at that time.

That was long ago, but the last time I checked, I still had the same skin I have now. Susceptibility to sunburn does not necessarily change to any noticeable degree from youth onwards, so we should expect that I should still be getting sunburned at about the same rate I was then.

Well... not exactly.

Earlier this week I decided to go sit in the pool where I live now for a bit. I was waiting for a call, so I checked my cell phone as I put it down. It was 2:05 pm. I put on my trunks, jumped in, splashed around for a bit, then got out and dried off enough to pick up my cell phone and check the time again: 2:32 pm. I was outside for another couple of minutes to dry off and then went indoors for the rest of the day. Therefore, we can confidently assume that I had been exposed to sunlight for 30 minutes.

And note, that this sunlight is 7 degrees of latitude further north than the southern Ontario pool of my youth, so the incident rays of the sun are more oblique, thus less powerful.





This was the single worst sunburn of my entire life, and when you consider that I have lived in the deserts of California and Nevada, plus a few more years in the tropical sun of Florida, the Caribbean, Australia, and Africa, that's really saying something!

I suffered not only sunburn on the skin causing dermal damage and peeling, but a borderline sunstroke which kept me up all night with severe pain in my joints and massive dehydration. I must have quaffed at least six litres of ice water overnight while I couldn't sleep.

Ok... what's the deal here?

There is no way possible that a 7% increase in the UV-A and UV-B radiation could create an effect like that on my skin. Either I was impervious to sunlight when I was younger (next to biologically impossible) or there is a whole whack more than 7% more sunlight radiation hitting the surface of the Earth now than there was before!

I can't see anything less than a 1,000%, or ten fold, increase in UV-A and UV-B causing this kind of damage so fast. Maybe considerably more than 1,000%!

This is a situation which requires immediate and comprehensive research, likely more than any other environmental climate change issue on the planet today. If the amount of UV radiation which is penetrating the atmosphere is sufficient to cause that much damage to someone who would only get lightly toasted earlier in his life, we have an extremely critical problem which dwarfs just about anything else that humanity is currently confronting!

What are the long term effects of this level of UV radiation on the flora and fauna of the planet? What kind of impact does this have on the ecological cycles which regulate all life?

It may just be high time that we as a species drop our media-soaked distraction and demand that the issue of increased solar radiation on the surface of our only planet be examined to a much greater degree than it is now. Something drastic is happening outside our windows, and if it is anywhere near as critical as my example leads one to believe, our entire ecosystem and the very future of our civilization is at stake.


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    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      I can't possibly see any advantage to higher UV levels. Have you looked at their effect on frogs, which are at the base of the food chain? We are currently undergoing absolutely staggering losses of biodiversity. The date in question was over a week after the solstice, and what I did in a pool 12 hours a day for years cannot be summarized as one swimming technique or another. I hung out! :)

    • profile image

      Robubba 8 years ago

      I also have both experienced Wyoming vs Iowa altitude.  And I must say, I would rather get the radiation from Wyoming.  Although there is much hype about skin damage from radiation, we must realize without it, we can't produce any vitamin D, and that sun is one of the biggest vaccums of cholesterol.  It takes the stuff out of our blood, and turns it into Cholecalciferol (please correct me if it's a difference form of D3), were it has a use in every organ in our body.

      And actually, little kids will be more resilient to sunburn due to the fact that children heal more rapidly.  This actually lengthens how much time it takes to burn...  Pool-side areas have higher UV index because water reflects the UV strength light well.  Did you do deep diving or butterfly strokes?

      However, an increasing UV index is something to be a little worried about.  I am extremely puzzled why the southern hemisphere gets significantly less UV.  Because I thought that was where the Ozone layer was thinning most significantly.  Was this during the northern summer solstice?

      But one good thing for excess UV is the abundant growth of plantlife, possibly negating our CO2 emissions.

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      eovery: Thanks. I'm slowly recovering but it still hurts like a #$%&... The worst effect by far was the sunstroke. It not only dehydrated me to an extreme level, but it set up aches and pains that were as bad as a vicious flu. Definitely an experience I don't want to repeat. Actually the difference in altitude between my old southern Ontario pool and my pool where I am now is less than 500 feet, so that should not make any difference.

      Gypsy Willow: Thanks! I would believe that the science community would stick to its guns on the 7% figure, but the bottom line is that they can throw all the statistics they want at me, my sunburn trumps their numbers.

      RVDaniels: Most definitely, as you have to wonder what the effects are on the biosphere which is subjected to this UV barrage without the option of going indoors!

      Alexander Mark: Again, I can't really comment on what the official stats state is the level of UV radiation, and I'm also aware that only one sample does not make a statistical study. But my experience is definitely indicative of something very wrong in the scientific literature on this subject. I wore just about as many clothes (just swimming trunks) then as now. Of course over the period of a winter, skin loses its protective tan and as soon as it's suddenly exposed to strong sunshine it is more likely to burn. But that was exactly the case way back in my youth as well. There was never a "first day in the pool" which lasted 30 minutes when I was young, it was always an all day affair. Therefore receiving such serious effects in half an hour IMHO definitely merits serious investigation.

    • Alexander Mark profile image

      Alexander Silvius 8 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Interesting hub. Maybe we are noticing more dramatic effects of UV radiation damage because people are wearing less clothing. Maybe because we are living longer and in more controlled environments, (think offices and air conditioned cars), we become more succeptible to sun stroke and sunburn.

      There are other explanations out there than the usual global warming scare. As a Christian I can accept the possibility of global warming because I believe the world is in constant decline from sin. But there is a lot of biased science out there, so you're right, this needs some serious attention and an honest look. Perhaps our natural shield is thinning.

    • RVDaniels profile image

      RVDaniels 8 years ago from Athens, GA

      Scary, huh?

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Interesting hub, Is any one else commenting on it in an official capacity? I know in Australia one is always being extorted to Slip, Slap Slosh. Slip on a shirt, slap on a hat and slosh on factor 45 sun screen. Hope you are over the effects of your exposure.

    • eovery profile image

      eovery 8 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

      Hope your sunburn is better

      Did you have an altitude difference. I was raised in the high plains of Wyoming at 6500 feer where I would get burned in a short time, but here in Iowa as about 1200 feet, It takes a lot longer.

      Keep on Hubbing!