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Ozone depletion

Ozone depletion, or ozone layer depletion is the name for the observed decrease in the atmosphere's ozone layer. Ozone depletion has been observed all over the globe but is greatest at high latitudes (that is, near the poles), most notably over Antarctica during the polar winter (see ozone hole).

Since the ozone layer absorbs ultraviolet radiation, which in turn causes skin cancer, ozone depletion has been cause for concern, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.

Ozone in the Earth's atmosphere is generally created by ultraviolet light striking oxygen molecules, which consist of two oxygen atoms (O2), creating two single oxygen atoms, known as atomic oxygen. The atomic oxygen then combines with a molecule of O2 to create ozone, O3. The ozone molecule is also unstable and when hit by ultraviolet light it splits into a molecule of O2 and an atom of atomic oxygen, a continuing process called the ozone-oxygen cycle. Ozone can be destroyed by atomic chlorine, fluorine or bromine in the atmosphere. These elements are found in certain stable compounds, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which may find their way to the stratosphere and there be liberated by the action of ultraviolet light. Most importantly, the chlorine atoms so generated destroy ozone molecules in a catalytic cycle. In this cycle a single chlorine atom would keep on destroying ozone forever, were it not for reactions that remove chlorine atoms from this cycle by forming reservoir species such as hydrochloric acid and chlorine nitrate. The reactivation of atomic chlorine from these reservoir species is normally slow, but is enhanced by the presence of polar stratospheric clouds which appear during arctic winters, leading to a strong seasonal cycle in ozone hole formation.


Substantial reductions of up to 50% in the ozone column observed in the austral (i.e. southern hemisphere) spring over Antarctica and first reported in 1985 (Farman et al 1985) are continuing (SORG 1990). Coupled with this there has been a statistically significant downward trend in wintertime total ozone over the northern hemisphere of about 2-3% per decade for the past 30 years, although summertime ozone levels have remained approximately constant (Frederick 1990).


Most atmospheric scientists and environmental advocacy groups attribute a role to human-made substances, particularly Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), in the ozone depletion, because a rise in CFC production has accompanied the ozone depletion and because a plausible chemical mechanism for CFC's role in ozone depletion has been proposed. As a result, a worldwide ban on CFCs, the Montreal Protocol, was signed and entered into force in 1989.

Some atmospheric scientists (for instance Fred Singer, founder of SEPP) and industry-sponsored advocacy groups deny a link between CFC's and ozone depletion.