Ozone depletion

Ozone depletion describes two distinct but related phenomena observed since the late 1970s: a steady decline of about 4% per decade in the total volume of ozone in Earth's stratosphere (the ozone layer), and a much larger springtime decrease in stratospheric ozone over Earth's polar regions. The latter phenomenon is referred to as the ozone hole. In addition to these well-known stratospheric phenomena, there are also springtime polar tropospheric ozone depletion events.

The details of polar ozone hole formation differ from that of mid-latitude thinning, but the most important process in both is catalytic destruction of ozone by atomic halogens. The main source of these halogen atoms in the stratosphere is photodissociation of man-made Halocarbon refrigerants (CFCs, freons, halons.) These compounds are transported into the stratosphere after being emitted at the surface. Both types of ozone depletion were observed to increase as emissions of Halocarbons increased.

CFCs and other contributory substances are referred to as ozone-depleting substances (ODS). Since the ozone layer prevents most harmful UVB wavelengths (280–315 nm) of ultraviolet light (UV light) from passing through the Earth's atmosphere, observed and projected decreases in ozone have generated worldwide concern leading to adoption of the Montreal Protocol that bans the production of CFCs, halons as and other ozone-depleting chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethane. It is suspected that a variety of biological consequences such as increases in skin cancer, cataracts, damage to plants, and reduction of plankton populations in the ocean's photic zone may result from the increased UV exposure due to ozone depletion.

The most pronounced decrease in ozone has been in the lower stratosphere. However, the ozone hole is most usually measured not in terms of ozone concentrations at these levels (which are typically of a few parts per million) but by reduction in the total column ozone, above a point on the Earth's surface, which is normally expressed in Dobson units, abbreviated as "DU". Marked decreases in column ozone in the Antarctic spring and early summer compared to the early 1970s and before have been observed using instruments such as the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS).

Reductions of up to 70% in the ozone column observed in the austral (southern hemispheric) spring over Antarctica and first reported in 1985 (Farman et al. 1985) are continuing. Through the 1990s, total column ozone in September and October have continued to be 40–50% lower than pre-ozone-hole values. In the Arctic the amount lost is more variable year-to-year than in the Antarctic. The greatest declines, up to 30%, are in the winter and spring, when the stratosphere is colder.

Reactions that take place on polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) play an important role in enhancing ozone depletion. PSCs form more readily in the extreme cold of Antarctic stratosphere. This is why ozone holes first formed, and are deeper, over Antarctica. Early models failed to take PSCs into account and predicted a gradual global depletion, which is why the sudden Antarctic ozone hole was such a surprise to many scientists.

In middle latitudes it is preferable to speak of ozone depletion rather than holes. Declines are about 3% below pre-1980 values for 35–60°N and about 6% for 35–60°S. In the tropics, there are no significant trends.

Ozone depletion also explains much of the observed reduction in stratospheric and upper tropospheric temperatures. The source of the warmth of the stratosphere is the absorption of UV radiation by ozone, hence reduced ozone leads to cooling. Some stratospheric cooling is also predicted from increases in greenhouse gases such as CO2; however the ozone-induced cooling appears to be dominant.

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