Earth's Ozone Layer: Good News and a Puzzle

May 26, 2006
The ozone layer is located about 15+ km above Earth's surface.
The ozone layer is located about 15+ km above Earth's surface.

Think of the ozone layer as Earth's sunglasses, protecting life on the surface from the harmful glare of the sun's strongest ultraviolet rays, which can cause skin cancer and other maladies.

People were understandably alarmed, then, in the 1980s when scientists noticed that manmade chemicals in the atmosphere were destroying this layer. Governments quickly enacted an international treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, to ban ozone-destroying gases such as CFCs then found in aerosol cans and air conditioners.

Today, almost 20 years later, reports continue of large ozone holes opening over Antarctica, allowing dangerous UV rays through to Earth's surface. Indeed, the 2005 ozone hole was one of the biggest ever, spanning 24 million sq km in area, nearly the size of North America.

Listening to this news, you might suppose that little progress has been made. You'd be wrong.

While the ozone hole over Antarctica continues to open wide, the ozone layer around the rest of the planet seems to be on the mend. For the last 9 years, worldwide ozone has remained roughly constant, halting the decline first noticed in the 1980s.

The question is why? Is the Montreal Protocol responsible? Or is some other process at work?

It's a complicated question. CFCs are not the only things that can influence the ozone layer; sunspots, volcanoes and weather also play a role. Ultraviolet rays from sunspots boost the ozone layer, while sulfurous gases emitted by some volcanoes can weaken it. Cold air in the stratosphere can either weaken or boost the ozone layer, depending on altitude and latitude. These processes and others are laid out in a review just published in the May 4th issue of Nature: "The search for signs of recovery of the ozone layer" by Elizabeth Westhead and Signe Andersen.

Sorting out cause and effect is difficult, but a group of NASA and university researchers may have made some headway. Their new study, entitled "Attribution of recovery in lower-stratospheric ozone," was just accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research. It concludes that about half of the recent trend is due to CFC reductions.

Lead author Eun-Su Yang of the Georgia Institute of Technology explains: "We measured ozone concentrations at different altitudes using satellites, balloons and instruments on the ground. Then we compared our measurements with computer predictions of ozone recovery, [calculated from real, measured reductions in CFCs]." Their calculations took into account the known behavior of the sunspot cycle (which peaked in 2001), seasonal changes in the ozone layer, and Quasi-Biennial Oscillations, a type of stratospheric wind pattern known to affect ozone.

What they found is both good news and a puzzle.

The good news: In the upper stratosphere (above roughly 18 km), ozone recovery can be explained almost entirely by CFC reductions. "Up there, the Montreal Protocol seems to be working," says co-author Mike Newchurch of the Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The puzzle: In the lower stratosphere (between 10 and 18 km) ozone has recovered even better than changes in CFCs alone would predict. Something else must be affecting the trend at these lower altitudes.

The "something else" could be atmospheric wind patterns. "Winds carry ozone from the equator where it is made to higher latitudes where it is destroyed. Changing wind patterns affect the balance of ozone and could be boosting the recovery below 18 km," says Newchurch. This explanation seems to offer the best fit to the computer model of Yang et al. The jury is still out, however; other sources of natural or manmade variability may yet prove to be the cause of the lower-stratosphere's bonus ozone.

Whatever the explanation, if the trend continues, the global ozone layer should be restored to 1980 levels sometime between 2030 and 2070. By then even the Antarctic ozone hole might close--for good.

Source: Science@NASA, by Patrick L. Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

Explore further: NASA sees Tropical Depression Polo winding down

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Scientists say the ozone layer is recovering

Sep 10, 2014

Earth's protective ozone layer is beginning to recover, largely because of the phase-out since the 1980s of certain chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans, a U.N. scientific panel reported Wednesday ...

Is the ozone layer on the road to recovery?

Feb 10, 2013

(Phys.org)—Satellites show that the recent ozone hole over Antarctica was the smallest seen in the past decade. Long-term observations also reveal that Earth's ozone has been strengthening following international ...

Climate tracking experiment celebrates 10 years

Nov 06, 2013

Scientists, industry and government representatives gathered at the University of Toronto recently for the 10-year anniversary of the successful Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment known as ACE.

Ozone hole might slightly warm planet

Aug 08, 2013

A lot of people mix up the ozone hole and global warming, believing the hole is a major cause of the world's increasing average temperature. Scientists, on the other hand, have long attributed a small cooling ...

Recommended for you

Study links changing winds to warming in Pacific

4 hours ago

A new study released Monday found that warming temperatures in Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of North America over the past century closely followed natural changes in the wind, not increases in greenhouse ...

NASA image: Wildfires in Khabarovsk Krai, Russia

5 hours ago

Most of the fires captured in this image burn in Khabarovsk Krai, a territory occupying the coastline of the Sea of Okhotsk. Dozens of red hotspots, accompanied by plumes of smoke mark active fires. The smoke, ...

NASA sees Tropical Depression Polo winding down

8 hours ago

Infrared satellite imagery from NASA's Aqua satellite showed only a swirl of low-level clouds some deep clouds around Polo's weakening center on Sept. 22 as the storm weakened to a depression.

User comments : 0