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In Memoriam: Dr. Richard S. Stolarski [1941–2024]

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In Memoriam Dr. Richard Stolarski
Photo. Dr. Richard (Rich) Stolarski in February, 1989 at the NASA Arctic Airborne Stratospheric Experiment (AASE-I) in Stavanger, Norway. Rich is seen here describing model results from the GSFC chemistry model.
Photo credit: Paul Newman/NASA

Renowned ozone scientist Dr. Richard “Rich” Stolarski died on February 22, 2024, at age 82 from the complications of prostate cancer. Rich was born at Fort Lewis, WA on November 22, 1941. After short stays in Kansas and Hawaii, Rich’s family settled in Tacoma, WA. He attended Stadium High School for three years and Wilson High School for his final year. He received his Bachelor of Science in physics and mathematics from the University of Puget Sound in 1963 and his Ph.D. from the University of Florida three years later in 1966 under Professor Alex Green. Rich was a University of Michigan post-doctoral fellow from 1967 – 1974 under Professor Andrew Nagy, where he met his colleague and friend Dr. Ralph Cicerone. 

Rich joined NASA in 1974 at the Manned Space Center (now the Johnson Space Center) as a research physicist in the Environmental Effects Projects Office. He moved to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in 1976 to join the fledgling Stratospheric Physics and Chemistry Branch. Rich was branch head (1979 – 1985) and a research scientist (1985 – 2010). He was the Program Scientist for the Atmospheric Effects of the Stratospheric Aircraft program at NASA headquarters from 1992 to 1995. From 2010 until his passing, Rich was a NASA Goddard Emeritus scientist and a Research Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. 

Rich’s atmospheric science career began during a period of great ferment. A proposed fleet of supersonic transport aircraft (SSTs) was being researched in the early 1970s, and scientists had proposed that nitrogen emissions from SST engines could deplete the Earth’s ozone layer. In 1974, Rich and Ralph Cicerone published their groundbreaking paper showing that reactive chlorine compounds derived from emissions by the NASA space shuttle could also deplete the ozone layer. Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland independently proposed that reactive chlorine could destroy ozone, and further hypothesized that human-produced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) would be a source of reactive chlorine compounds. Molina and Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for this work, and Stolarski and Cicerone were cited in the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s press release for their contributions. Rich was awarded the United Nations Environmental Program’s Ozone Award in 1997, where “Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone and Dr. Richard S. Stolarski were the first to indicate the important role of chlorine monoxide in stratospheric ozone depletion.”

The severe ozone decline over Antarctica discovered by British Antarctic Survey scientists in the 1980s was simultaneously shocking, disturbing, and exciting. In parallel, Dr. P. K. Bhartia and others were examining extremely low ozone values measured by the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) aboard NASA’s Nimbus–7 satellite. Rich and colleagues found that TOMS showed that this severe Antarctic ozone decline was continental in scale, publishing the first paper on satellite observations of this ozone depletion. This rapid ozone decline combined with the continental scale led to the coining of the name “Antarctic Ozone Hole” to describe the phenomenon. The ozone hole’s appearance did not directly lead to the finalizing of the “Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer” (now signed by every nation on Earth), but it likely influenced negotiations for the treaty and supported later strengthening of the protocol with amendments in 1990 and 1992. Subsequent work showing that chlorine-containing substances were causing the ozone hole led to a complete banning of CFCs in 2010. Rich’s work on the Antarctic ozone hole was cited in his 2007 NASA Goddard Scientific Research Award as “… one of the most important papers in atmospheric science in the second half of the twentieth century.” Rich also received NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal for his ozone hole research and was named a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 1996.

Rich continued his ozone layer research, contributing to the development of trend-quality data sets. In 1991 he published a seminal paper on ozone trends that showed the unambiguous decline of the ozone layer. In this paper he carefully removed “natural” ozone variations to reveal a steady downward ozone trend. Rich was recognized in 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Ozone Protection Award for being “… a leader in the verification of ozone depletion from observational data.”

Assessments of ozone depletion are written reports from scientists that provide the foundation for the international Montreal Protocol and Vienna Convention. While many “national” reports were written following Rich’s 1974 paper, there was no international consensus. In December 1980, Rich led an international-based scientific summary of the stratosphere and an assessment of human impact on the ozone layer. This was followed by the 1985 three-volume international report (Atmospheric Ozone: 1985) in which Rich helped write the introduction as well as provide model contributions, reviews, and edits of the report. Ozone 1985 was the scientific basis for the landmark Montreal Protocol. Rich contributed to assessments in 1988, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 in several roles. Rich attended many of the Les Diableret meetings where the primary executive summaries for Montreal Protocol policy makers were written. Rich’s calm influence and careful science statements at those meetings helped produce clear and consistent messages for the nations of the world in their Montreal Protocol deliberations. 

Rich’s modeling contributions began with one dimensional models (height) in the 1970s, evolving to height – latitude models in the 1980s, and fully three-dimensional models late in his career. He was expert at identifying the processes that controlled the simulated ozone distribution and its response to natural and human-produced perturbations. Late in his career at NASA, Rich took on the challenge of leading NASA Goddard’s chemistry–climate modeling project. Rich applied his strengths to this project, making sure that it focused on the scientific questions of the day and examining how ozone changes impact the temperature and dynamics of the stratosphere and troposphere. In 2009, Rich was awarded the NASA Robert H. Goddard Award of Merit, in part for having “… pioneered a new initiative in the model of the coupling of chemistry and climate, utilizing the GMAO climate model, and involving a large number of Goddard and outside scientists.”

In the 1990s the World Climate Research Program’s (WCRP) Stratospheric Processes effort was emerging, drawing together scientists from many nations to discuss our evolving understanding of the ozone layer. As an important contributor to conferences and summer schools organized by this WCRP effort, Rich could be found in the center of a crowd of early career scientists, discussing ozone, science, and life, thus fostering the next generation of leaders. He was elected a member of the International Ozone Commission (IO3C) in 1996, became the IO3C vice-president in 2008, and was elected as an “Honorary IO3C Member” in 2016.

Papers, citations, and awards are performance measures that rarely fully capture the totality of a scientist’s contribution and clearly fail to capture the essence of a life. Rich had an extremely distinguished science career with 155 publications in refereed science journals and 63 additional publications in other reports and science documents. Rich was a quick thinker with a curiosity and a love of learning that never faded. He was particularly adept at the use of models and analysis to identify the processes that control the ozone distribution, the interplay between chemical reactions and transport, and applying his knowledge to understand the stratospheric response to anthropogenic changes in composition and climate. He was a selfless contributor and an excellent collaborator. He was a friend and mentor to many, and through his mentorship his legacy will continue.

In addition to his scientific family, Rich is survived by his beloved wife of 59 years, Shirley Stolarski; daughter Susan Stolarski Datta and her husband Joy of Charleston, SC; son Steven Stolarski and his wife Vanessa of Purcellville, VA; three grandchildren, Kellen Datta, and Zachary and Maxwell Stolarski; brother Bob Stolarski and his wife Jean of Dewey, AZ; and brother-in-law Bob Jewett and his wife Janet of Loveland, CO.

Acknowledgments: The Earth Observer staff wishes to thank Paul A. Newman [GSFC] and Anne Douglass [GSFC, emeritus] for writing this In Memoriam.