Scientists spotted the biggest hole ever incurred in the Arctic’s ozone layer. The very first time the Arctic’s ozone layer developed a tear, which grew into a hole, then a bigger hole and now the biggest ever recorded.
This hole in the Arctic ozone layer was first spotted in February and now reached an area of over 620,000 square miles, said Diego Loyola, a scientist at the German Aerospace Center, in a statement to the European Space Agency
Since then, ozone levels in the area have dropped steeply.
It is unusual because every year, holes in the ozone layer are reported in the Antarctic, where temperatures are much colder. However, no sizable holes in the ozone layer have been recorded in the Arctic since 2011.
A false-color view represents the total ozone over the Arctic pole between April 2019 and April 6, 2020. Areas with the least ozone are marked with purple and blue while the fields with more ozone are marked with yellow and red. This year, there’s significantly less ozone.
The researchers, with the Copernicus Program, the European Union’s Earth observation program, who first caught the hole, were even not sure why it’s so large.
“The ozone has been, in this layer, almost completely depleted,” said Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
Facts about ozone layer and ozone holes
The ozone layer is located in the stratosphere between 9 and 22 miles above the Earth, to protect us from ultraviolet radiation, which is known to cause skin cancer and suppress the immune system. Life on Earth relies on the ozone layer for that reason. But the chemicals made by humans have been creating holes in it for years. Since 1985, there’s been a hole in the Antarctic ozone layer every year, and the British Antarctic Survey reported the first one.
Among a few conditions that are necessary to tear a hole in the ozone layer, one of them is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), manufactured chemicals, and halons. The chlorofluorocarbons have been phased out of consumer products after becoming banned in 1996. Halons formerly found in fire extinguishers, which accumulate in the atmosphere after being emitted during human activity.
These chemicals can remain in the atmosphere between 50 and 100 years. Therefore, until the end of the 21st century, due to the longevity of these chemicals, the ozone layer isn’t expected to heal fully, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The formation of ozone holes
The formation of polar vortexes is a reason. The polar vortexes are swirls of stratospheric clouds that form when the Antarctic is cloaked in below-freezing darkness and facilitate the reactions between CFCs and the ozone layer (holes typically form when the temperature is -108.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
When the first sunlight arrives after winter, and the conditions are right, the ozone breaks the CFC bond to release a chlorine atom, which can poke a hole in the ozone layer, according to NASA Ozone Watch.
However, ozone holes to incur in the Arctic is a much rarer event, where the mountainous terrain at high altitudes makes it difficult for polar vortexes to form and sustain their power, Peuch said.
But the appearance of this record-breaking hole proves that conditions must have been right in the Arctic. Peuch said it’s still not clear why this hole formed, in any case.
Implications of the record-breaking hole
In the affected area, the ozone level fell steeply throughout February and March, Peuch said.
As a result, the UV radiation is slightly higher than usual on the Earth’s surface. However, as the hole occurred in the winter into early spring, the UV index reached a high of 5. It may be unusually high for this region but relatively normal for most of the United States, which hovers around an index of 5 or 6, according to the EPA’s monthly UV averages.
This hole doesn’t pose a considerable threat to humans, though, Peuch said. The effects of this ozone hole are minor, and the UV radiation is mostly affecting northern Greenland, which he said is sparsely populated, and the exposure won’t last long.
The area of concern, he said, is how ecosystems in the area could be affected by this.
“That I cannot tell, but for human health, it’s fairly moderate,” he said.
And the hole is also not permanent, either: Peuch said he expects it will start to close as soon as next week.