Like an infection that grows more and more virulent, the continent-size hole in Earth's ozone layer keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Each year since the late 1970s, much of the protective layer of stratospheric ozone above Antarctica has disappeared during September, creating what is popularly known as the ozone hole. The Antarctic hole now measures about 9 million square miles, nearly the size of North America. Less dramatic, still significant, depletion of ozone levels has been recorded around the globe. With less ozone in the atmosphere, more ultraviolet radiation strikes Earth, causing more skin cancer, eye damage, and possible harm to crops. What is ozone? How did researchers discover its role in Earth's atmosphere and the devastating consequences of its depletion?
For four months of every year, Antarctica's McMurdo Research Station lies shrouded in darkness. Then the first rays of light peek out over the horizon. Each day, the sun lingers in the sky just a little longer and the harsh polar winter slowly gives way to spring. Spring also brings another type of light to the Antarctic, a light that harms instead of nurtures. In this season of new beginnings, the hole in the ozone layer reforms, allowing lethal ultraviolet radiation to stream through Earth's atmosphere.
The hole lasts for only two months, but its timing could not be worse. Just as sunlight awakens activity in dormant plants and animals, it also delivers a dose of harmful ultraviolet radiation. After eight weeks, the hole leaves
Antarctica, only to pass over more populated areas, including New Zealand and Australia. This biologically damaging, high-energy radiation can cause skin cancer, injure eyes, harm the immune system, and upset the fragile balance of an entire ecosystem.
Although, two decades ago, most scientists would have scoffed at the notion that industrial chemicals could destroy ozone high up in the atmosphere, researchers now know that chlorine creates the hole by devouring ozone molecules. Years of study on the ground, in aircraft, and from satellites has conclusively identified the source of the chlorine: human-made chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that have been used in spray cans, foam packaging, and refrigeration materials.
All About the Ozone
Ozone is a relatively simple molecule, consisting of three oxygen atoms bound together. Yet it has dramatically different effects depending upon its location. Near Earth's surface, where ozone comes into direct contact with life forms, it primarily displays a destructive side. Because it reacts strongly with other molecules, large concentrations of ozone near the ground prove toxic to living things. At higher altitudes, where 90 percent of our planet's ozone resides, it does a remarkable job of absorbing ultraviolet radiation. In the absence of this gaseous shield in the stratosphere, the harmful radiation has a perfect portal through which to strike Earth. Although a combination of weather conditions and CFC chemistry conspire to create the thinnest ozone levels in the sky above the South Pole, CFCs are mainly released at northern latitudes--mostly from Europe, Russia, Japan, and North America--and play a leading role in lowering ozone concentrations around the globe.
Worldwide monitoring has shown that stratospheric ozone has declined for at least two decades, with losses of about 10 percent in the winter and spring and 5 percent in the summer and autumn in such diverse locations as Europe, North America, and Australia. Researchers now find depletion over the North Pole as well, and the problem seems to be getting worse each year. According to a United Nations report, the annual dose of harmful ultraviolet radiation striking the northern hemisphere rose by 5 percent during the past decade.
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