Whither the ozone hole?

September 16, 2011, University of Cambridge
Antarctic Ozone Hole. Credit: Nasa

To mark the annual International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer (Ozone Day), Dr Neil Harris, an expert on the atmospheric composition from the University’s Department of Chemistry, discusses why research into this issue is as important as ever.

The is iconic. Even an old grump like me has to admit that. It was discovered so suddenly and unexpectedly, and yet was so large that it captured the public imagination. (It helped that NASA could provide striking colour pictures, of course!) However over the last 10 years or so the reality of the ozone hole has drifted away from the public’s consciousness, and the term is now widely used to represent environmental problems as a whole. As someone who has studied it for a number of years, this is both welcome and frustrating. The term is an excellent short-hand for describing what I do when meeting people; but I’ve lost track of the number of times I have had to explain that the ozone hole is not global warming or air pollution. Or even that it comes back year after year and will do so for the next 50 years.

The size of the ozone hole varies from year to year, and so every August many atmospheric scientists start keeping an eye on what is happening at the other end of the world. Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge (where the ozone hole was first discovered) keep an especially close eye as they continue their 55 year record of ozone observations. Elsewhere, the advent of the web means that there is ready access to measurements from the ground, from balloons and from satellites. This year, for example, the Antarctic winter has been very cold with temperatures still below –80°C over large parts of the stratosphere. The ozone hole has formed earlier than usual and is now nearly as big as it ever has been, though it is unlikely to grow much larger over the coming weeks.

The Montreal protocol, the international treaty which limits the production of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and other ozone depleting gases, has been very successful, with emissions cut right back to the bone and atmospheric concentrations starting to decline. However these gases can live in the atmosphere for 50-100 years, and so the decline is slow. It is real, nonetheless, and overall levels are 5 to 10% below their peak. So why is no recovery discernible in the ozone hole?

The reason is probably to do with the complex interaction between the ozone depletion and climate change. If the lower part of the atmosphere warms, then the upper part has to respond. Both are happening in the same atmosphere, so it is simplistic to think that the two phenomena are isolated. (Even though the scientific community did just that for many years.) The links between the two are poorly understood, certainly not enough to make firm predictions about what will happen. This problem is being studied a great deal at the moment. It is important for understanding future ozone levels; it is also important because the stratosphere will modulate climate change. It is thus not surprising that we cannot see a recovery in the ozone hole each year.

What was surprising was the appearance earlier this year of the largest ozone loss over high northern latitudes following the coldest winter yet seen in the Arctic stratosphere. As in the Antarctic, this was observed by instruments on the ground, from balloons and from satellites. The detailed analyses are underway. Whether the extremely low stratospheric temperatures last winter were a fluke (and variability over the Arctic is high) or whether they were another manifestation of climate change is not clear. The surprising and unexplained feature in the Arctic stratosphere is that the cold winters have got colder over the last 40 years. In other words there are still warm winters which are similar to what they were before; but cold ones are even colder. At the moment there is no good explanation of this observation, and the models do not reproduce it.

Given this development in the Arctic, it has been disappointing to hear the rumours and speculation that Canada, which has provided the cornerstone of ozone measurements at high northern latitudes, is considering cutting its observational programme. This has probably occurred because people not familiar with the field thought that the problem was solved. Hopefully the rumours are wrong or the decision will be reversed. Similar sentiments have, I am sure, being expressed elsewhere; I only mention this here because Canada has made such an important contribution (over 50 years of high quality measurements) up to now that any loss would be proportionately great.

This interaction between ozone depletion and means that the scientific interest in continuing long-term measurements of ozone is as great as it ever was. Events such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s Ozone Day, held each year to mark the signing of the Montréal protocol, are therefore important reminders. First, the ozone hole reappears each year. Second, it is possible to take effective international action on global environmental issues. Third, these issues are long-term and do not quickly disappear. They need watching.

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1.4 / 5 (11) Sep 16, 2011
Thanks for the story.

Unfortunately the credibility of scary environmental warnings has been seriously damaged by AGW scandal, evidence of manipulated temperature data and the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize given to Al Gore, the UN's IPCC, and an army of consensus scientists.

With deep regrets,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
4 / 5 (4) Sep 16, 2011
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2011
Thanks for the story.

Unfortunately the credibility of scary environmental warnings has been seriously damaged by AGW scandal, evidence of manipulated temperature data and the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize given to Al Gore, the UN's IPCC, and an army of consensus scientists.

With deep regrets,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo

You obviously did not read the article as its to do with holes in the ozone rather than global warming man made or otherwise. Best you go back to child molesting! At least you can do that farely well if the reports on you are accurate.
not rated yet Sep 17, 2011
the reports are 100% accurate, his name and charge and that he is a registered sex offender can be found online.
look at his omatumr page he always links to home page and you can see pics of him that confirm what oliver looks like.
4 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2011
After weeks of Oliver attacking Kissinger, Nixon, Chou en Lai, Mao and EVERY President since then Oliver posted a link to 'evidence' in the form of a letter from Kissinger to Nixon.

[1] Henry Kissingers summary of events of 9-11 July 2011 were declassified in 2003]


I am pleased that Oliver linked to that letter without reading it. If he read it he would not have linked to it.

After reading the PDF of what Kissinger wrote to Nixon, yes all of it, it is quite clear that Oliver did not read it. It does not support his nonsense in any way what so ever. It pretty much fits my memory of what was going on at the time. The only real surprise was that the Chinese were worried that we would allow the Japanese to put troops in Taiwan and the Sino-Indian War was mentioned. I didn't really remember that war as I was only ten at the time.

There was not one single word about environmental issue of any kind.

Heck Kissinger didn't even meet Mao.

1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 17, 2011
"it comes back year after year and will do so for the next 50 years..."

Actually, the ozone "hole" would appear whether humans were on the planet or not. It's due to the low amount of sunlight reaching that part of the atmosphere in the southern hemisphere winter (ozone is created when a UV photon of sufficient energy strikes an O2 molecule).

Not that the ozone "hole" ever mattered anyway, since it only occurs in areas that already have very low levels of UV (ie, Antarctica).

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