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Ozone depletion – all you need to know

We haven’t heard much about ozone depletion lately. Does it mean that the problem has vanished? What are the implications of diminishing ozone levels for climate and human health? In our article, we break it down for you.

Not that long time ago, stratospheric ozone depletion would make the headlines relatively often. Now, it’s the carbon dioxide emissions that are broadly discussed in the media, and the topic of ozone levels has worn off.

That doesn’t mean, however, that these two problems have nothing to do with each other. Even though they have different sources, their repercussions can interfere. The ozone depletion has enhanced the effects of climate change by moving the climate zones, which results in warmer oceans and affects the patterns of precipitation.

Before heading to the effects that the Antarctic ozone hole has caused over the decades, let’s take a look at the phenomenon itself.

What is ozone depletion?

The phenomenon, first observed in the 80s, comes down to the reduction of ozone concentration in the stratosphere. This gas is a natural barrier to ultraviolet radiation. It doesn’t stop it from reaching Earth but serves as a filter, lowering its intensity.

As the ozone concentration becomes lower and lower, more ultraviolet rays reach the down parts of the atmosphere. It’s worth noting that the ozone “coat” is not uniform – its thickness can vary depending on the sphere and time of the year. These variations have a natural background. The ozone molecule is not a lasting element – its existence depends strongly on sunlight, so there’s nothing unusual in the fluctuation of its levels. However, the anthropogenic activity has made it way more intense, causing complete atrophy of the Earth’s ozone layer in some parts of the globe. These changes were the most visible over the poles, particularly in Antarctica.

Why should we protect the ozone layer?

Why is the ozone layer so important? The UV radiation is dangerous to both fauna and flora, causing cell damage and permanent changes in the genetic material. There is also a strong bond between ozone depletion and climate change. No wonder that ozone is considered a greenhouse gas.

Ultraviolet rays reaching the Earth’s surface at higher levels is a direct danger for all living creatures, including humans. It can lead to cell death and mutation. UV is a direct cause of skin cancer and can affect this organ in numerous ways, causing burns and speeding up the ageing processes. The UV radiation can also cause irreversible changes in the cornea and retina of the eye. That often leads to cataracts and other progressive eye diseases.

Of course, even with sufficient levels of stratospheric ozone in the atmosphere, we have to protect ourselves from the negative impact of UV radiation. Using filters and appropriate lenses, we can avoid it at least partially. Nevertheless, if the ozone-depleting chemical reactions continue, we may end up not being able to provide ourselves with efficient protection. That’s why preventing these changes and reversing the ones that have already occurred became a priority after the scientists noticed what the anthropogenic activity does to the ozone layer.

 

What causes ozone depletion?

What kind of activity, in particular, has made the stratospheric ozone disappear? The main culprit is freon – a gas that is an essential production ingredient of the aerosols. Not that long ago, they would be present in the cosmetics distributed in this form as well as fridges and freezers. That has changed once its damaging influence on the ozone layer was publicized. The new norms in production have led to complete withdrawal of freons from the market.

What do the freons do? Let’s get into the scientific part in order to understand this process better. When the freon – or, in other words, chlorofluorocarbon – gets to the stratosphere, the UV rays decompose it into carbon, fluoride, and chlorine. And the chemical reactions of chloride and ozone lead to its decomposition into oxygen. Result? Less ozone in the atmosphere.

 

The stratospheric ozone loss in the past and today

Today, it looks like the problem of the diminishing amount of ozone-depleting substances in the stratosphere was restrained. Did it disappear entirely? Not really – from time to time, new illegal sources emerge. However, we’ve managed to put the global emissions to less than 10% of what it was in the nineties. That almost eliminates one of the problems that contribute to climate change – but there is still a lot to be done!

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