Ozone Depletion

Many of you will remember the media frenzy that engulfed many parts of the world in the late 1980s upon discovery of the fact that the had a hole in it that was dramatically increasing in size at certain times of each year. It was noted to be particularly pronounced in the southern hemisphere, and especially at the south pole.

What is the ozone layer?

Ozone is a very important gas in an upper section of our atmosphere. Its main benefit from our point of view is that it filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the Sun. It is not therefore just of benefit to humans, but also to all living things on the Earth as without it these ultraviolet rays would cause irreparable damage to many living things. Without the ozone layer this radiation would cause cancers and genetic mutations in life on Earth. It is vital to our survival.

What happened in the 1980's?

It became widespread knowledge that artifical chemicals used and produced by various industries, especially the infamous CFC's (chlorofluorocarbons), were involved in depleting the levels of ozone in the atmosphere. They reacted with the ozone gas and thus caused it to in effect disappear as it was transformed into other compounds. Such CFC chemicals were typically used in aerosol cans, refrigerators and in the production of some packing materials. They were considered safe until a rapidly increasing in size 'hole' was detected in the ozone layer above Antarctica at certain times each year. The 'hole' referred to a particular region where levels of observed ozone were very low. The rate of increase in the 'hole' size effectively panicked the international community into taking unprecedented immediate action and international agreements agreed to restrict, lessen and phase out the use of many of these chemicals, unless for essential use, such as medical use. Agreements were also put in place to financially support the developing world so that they may eventually lessen and phase out their use of these harmful substances too. It is an interesting point that only when there was clear unchallengable proof, the 'hole', that governments took the radical action that was necessary. There was no way any interested party could propagate uncertainty because they would appear foolish. Sometimes we cannot wait for such dramatic evidence to appear before taking action, we should trust our scientific records and instincts, as sometimes when the dramatic evidence appears it may be too late to do anything 9I'm talking about Global Warming here).

The lower levels of ozone were NOT just confined to the Antacrtic region and, for example, smaller reductions were detected at certain times of the year in the northern hemisphere in the more densely populated latitudes between 30°N and 60°N.

What's the current state of play?

The science of the causes of the ozone 'hole' is rather complicated and although many causes are understood there are continuing investigations into other causes. Initially it was thought that, following the agreements to reduce and phase out production and use of the harmful chemicals, the ozone layer was not experiencing such dramatic falls in levels of the gas each year as the poluution levels in the atmosphere levelled out. However in 2005 ozone observations over the Arctic fell to low levels not recorded for forty years and although this was not described as a hole, it was a clear case of thinning of the ozone layer in this region. The scientific community opined that Global Warming was partly responsible for providing some of the conditions for possibly exascerbating the problem and this is the current area of investigation. Part of the problem is that the harmful CFC chemicals remain in the atmosphere for a lengthy period of time (up to 50 years) and as such the ozone levels will remain vulnerable whilst they are still in existence.

In some ways we are fortunate that we have suncare products that we can use to protect us from harmful ultraviolet radiation and it is important that we do use them. However, if ever the human race needed an example of how fragile our environments are then this should be a lesson that should be heeded quickly and wisely. Arguably we could use this as a warning that some of our activites are not beneficial for the long term good or our planet and our civilisation. We should be taking more care and gaining a better understanding of our environments before abusing them. This may mean a cut in profits, a little harder work, and possibly spending a little more money, but if it secures the future of our world for our children and future generations to enjoy then that is not much of a price to pay at all. Is it?

This is a very simplified summary of ozone depletion and partly contains my opinion, but I recommend all who read this to learn more about this topic because it is one that affects us all and one that will affect future generations. For more understanding and information check out our forums (coming soon!) and the websites listed in our Eco-Links section. Please also refer to our what you CAN do section for advice about some of the things YOU can do to make a positive change to your environment and bring about change in your world. Thanks for reading this page.