What is the Ozone Layer?

To understand the ozone layer, it would be helpful to know the different layers of the atmosphere. The earth’s atmosphere is composed of many layers, each playing a significant role. The first layer stretching approximately 10 kilometers upwards from the earth’s surface is known as the troposphere. A lot of human activities such as gas balloons, mountain climbing, and small aircraft flights take place within this region.

The stratosphere is the next layer above the troposphere stretching approximately 15 to 60 kilometers. The ozone layer sits in the lower region of the stratosphere from about 20-30 kilometers above the surface of the earth. The thickness of the ozone layer is about 3 to 5 mm, but it pretty much fluctuates depending on the season and geography.

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Ozone layer is a deep layer in the earth’s atmosphere that contains ozone which is a naturally occurring molecule containing three oxygen atoms. These ozone molecules form a gaseous layer in the Earth’s upper atmosphere called the stratosphere.

This lower region of the stratosphere containing a relatively higher concentration of ozone is called Ozonosphere. The Ozonosphere is found 15-35 km (9 to 22 miles) above the surface of the earth.

The concentration of ozone in the ozone layer is usually under 10 parts per million while the average concentration of ozone in the atmosphere is about 0.3 parts per million. The thickness of the ozone layer differs as per season and geography. The highest concentrations of ozone occur at altitudes from 26 to 28 km (16 to 17 miles) in the tropics and from 12 to 20 km (7 to 12 miles) towards the poles.

The ozone layer forms a thick layer in the stratosphere, encircling the earth, which has a large amount of ozone in it. The ozone layer protects life on earth from strong ultraviolet radiation that comes from the sun.

Ultraviolet rays are harmful rays that can drive up the risk of deadly disorders like skin cancer, cataracts and damage the immune system. Ultraviolet rays are also capable of destroying single-cell organisms, terrestrial plant life, and aquatic ecosystems.

The ozone layer was discovered in 1913 by the French physicists Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson. The ozone layer has the capability to absorb almost 97-99% of the harmful ultraviolet radiation that sun emits and which can produce long term devastating effects on humans beings as well as plants and animals.

Composition of the Ozone Layer

It comes as a surprise that the same UV rays from the bulk of the ozone layer. Ozone is an extraordinary kind of oxygen composed of 3 oxygen atoms instead of the normal 2 oxygen atoms. The ozone layer normally develops when a few kinds of electrical discharge or radiation splits the 2 atoms in an oxygen(O2) molecule, which then independently reunite with other types of molecules to form ozone. The ozone layer has been shielding life on planet earth for billions of years, but it’s now being worn out by human activities.

People began to value the importance of the ozone layer when scientists released a research finding suggesting that certain human-made chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons managed to reach the stratosphere and depleted the ozone via a profound series of chemical reactions.

The results of this research study prompted the signing of a global treaty known as the Montreal Protocol in 1973. This treaty helped in the reduction of the production of these harmful human-made chemicals.

These targeted efforts have seen the ozone layer recovering over the past years. The thickness of the ozone layer varies immensely on any day and location. Due to relentless vertical atmospheric air circulation in both the stratosphere and troposphere, the amount of ozone layer shielding humans from strong UV rays can be lesser or greater. In addition, those residing in higher elevations are at risk of UV radiation than those at lower elevations.

The Stratospheric ozone plays a big role in protecting humans from the harshness of the sun. However, there is also a kind of ozone developed just above the ground as a result of sun rays coming into contact with pollution in the atmosphere, which is hazardous to human health.

In some individuals, it can lead to complications in breathing and often takes place during the summer when pollution is rampant in cities where the air is static.

Why is Ozone Layer Necessary?

An essential property of the ozone molecule is its ability to block solar radiations of wavelengths less than 290 nanometers from reaching Earth’s surface. In this process, it also absorbs ultraviolet radiation that is dangerous for most living beings. UV radiation could injure or kill life on Earth.

Though the absorption of UV radiation warms the stratosphere but it is important for life to flourish on planet Earth. Research scientists have anticipated the disruption of susceptible terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems due to the depletion of the ozone layer.

Ultraviolet radiation could destroy the organic matter. Plants and plankton cannot thrive, both acts as food for land and sea animals, respectively. For humans, excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation leads to higher risks of cancer (especially skin cancer) and cataracts.

It is calculated that every 1 percent decrease in the ozone layer results in a 2-5 percent increase in the occurrence of skin cancer. Other ill-effects of the reduction of protective ozone layer include – increase in the incidence of cataracts, sunburns and suppression of the immune system.

Causes of Ozone Layer Depletion

Credible scientific studies have substantiated that the cause of ozone layer depletion is human activity, specifically, human-made chemicals that contain chlorine or bromine. These chemicals are widely known as ODS, an acronym for Ozone-Depleting Substances. Scientists have observed a reduction in stratospheric ozone since the early 1970s. It is found to be more prominent in Polar Regions.

Ozone-Depleting Substances have been proven to be eco-friendly, very stable and non-toxic in the atmosphere below. This is why they have gained popularity over the years. However, their stability comes at a price; they are able to float and remain static high up in the stratosphere.

When up there, ODS are comfortably broken down by the strong UV light and the resultant chemical is chlorine and bromine. Chlorine and bromine are known to deplete the ozone layer at supersonic speeds. They do this by simply stripping off an atom from the ozone molecule. One chlorine molecule has the capability to break down thousands of ozone molecules.

Ozone-depleting substances have stayed and will continue to stay in the atmosphere for many years. This, essentially, implies that a lot of the ozone-depleting substances humans have allowed going into the atmosphere for the previous 90 years are still on their journey to the atmosphere, which is why they will contribute to ozone depletion.

The chief ozone-depleting substances include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), carbon tetrachloride, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and methyl chloroform. Halons, sometimes known as brominated fluorocarbons, also contribute mightily to ozone depletion.

However, their application is greatly restricted since they are utilized in specific fire extinguishers. The downside to halons is they are so potent that they are able to deplete the ozone layer 10 times more than ozone-depleting substances.

Scientists in this age are working around the clock to develop Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to take the place of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) for use in vehicle air conditioning.

Hydrochlorofluorocarbons are powerful greenhouse gases, but they are not able to deplete ozone. Chlorofluorocarbons, on the other hand, significantly contribute to climate change, which means Hydrofluorocarbons continue to be the better alternative until safer alternatives are available.

There are two regions in which the ozone layer has depleted.

  • In the mid-latitudes, for example, over Australia, the ozone layer is thinned. This has led to an increase in the UV radiation reaching the earth. It is estimated that about 5-9% thickness of the ozone layer has decreased, increasing the risk of humans to over-exposure to UV radiation owing to the outdoor lifestyle.
  • In atmospheric regions over Antarctica, the ozone layer is significantly thinner, especially in the spring season. This has led to the formation of what is called ‘ozone hole’. Ozone holes refer to the regions of severely reduced ozone layers. Usually, ozone holes form over the Poles during the onset of spring seasons. One of the largest such holes appears annually over Antarctica between September and November.

Natural Causes of Depletion of the Ozone Layer

The ozone layer has been found to be affected by certain natural phenomena such as Sun-spots and stratospheric winds. But this has been found to cause not more than 1-2% depletion of the ozone layer and the effects are also thought to be only temporary.

It is also believed that the major volcanic eruptions (mainly El Chichon in 1983 and Mt. Pinatubo in 1991) has also contributed towards ozone depletion.

Man-made Causes of Depletion of the Ozone Layer

The main cause for the depletion of ozone is determined as excessive release of chlorine and bromine from man-made compounds such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), halons, CH3CCl3 (Methyl chloroform), CCl4 (Carbon tetrachloride), HCFCs (hydro-chlorofluorocarbons), hydrobromofluorocarbons and methyl bromide are found to have a direct impact on the depletion of the ozone layer. These are categorized as ozone-depleting substances (ODS).

The problem with the Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS) is that they are not washed back in the form of rain on the earth and in-fact remain in the atmosphere for quite a long time. With so much stability, they are transported into the stratosphere.

The emission of ODS accounts for roughly 90% of the total depletion of the ozone layer in the stratosphere. These gases are carried to the stratosphere layer of the atmosphere where ultraviolet radiation from the sun breaks them to release chlorine (from CFCs) and bromine (from methyl bromide and halons).

The chlorine and bromine free radicals react with the ozone molecules and destroy their molecular structure, thus depleting the ozone layer. One chlorine atom can break more than 1, 00,000 molecules of ozone. Bromine atom is believed to be 40 times more destructive than chlorine molecules.

Main Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS)

1. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

It’s billed as the most extensively utilized ozone-depleting substance because it attributes to more than 80% of overall ozone depletion. It was utilized as a coolant in home appliances like freezers, refrigerators and air conditioners in both buildings and cars that were manufactured prior to 1995. This substance is usually contained in dry cleaning agents, hospital sterilants, and industrial solvents. The substance is also utilized in foam products like mattresses and cushions and home insulation.

2. Hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs)

Hydrofluorocarbons have over the years served in place of Chlorofluorocarbons. They are not as harmful as CFCs to ozone layer.

3. Halons

It’s especially used in selected fire extinguishers in scenarios where the equipment or material could be devastated by water or extinguisher chemicals.

4. Carbon Tetrachloride

Also used in selected fire extinguishers and solvents.

5. Methyl Chloroform

Commonly utilized in industries for cold cleaning, vapor degreasing, chemical processing, adhesives and some aerosols.

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Serious Effects of Ozone Depletion

1. Damage to Human Health

If the ozone layer is depleted, it means humans will be overly exposed to strong UV light. Overexposure to strong UV light causes skin cancer, cataracts, sunburns, weakening of the immune system and quick aging.

2. The Devastation to the Environment

Many crop species are vulnerable to strong UV light and overexposure may well lead to minimal growth, photosynthesis and flowering. Some of the crop species vulnerable to UV light include barley, wheat, corn, oats, rice, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower just to name a few. Forests equally bear the brunt of ozone depletion.

3. The Threat to Marine Life

Certain marine life, especially planktons, is greatly impacted by exposure to strong ultraviolet rays. In the aquatic food chain, planktons appear high up. If planktons decrease in number due to ozone layer destruction, the marine food chain would be disrupted in many ways.

Also, overexposure of sun rays could reduce the fortunes of fishers. On top of that, certain species of marine life have been greatly affected by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation at their early stage.

4. Effect on Animals

In domesticated animals, too much Ultraviolet radiation could also lead to skin and eye cancer.

5. Impacts Certain Materials

Materials like plastics, wood, fabrics, rubber are massively degraded by too much ultraviolet radiation

 Solutions to Ozone Depletion

1. Desist From Using Pesticides

Pesticides are great chemicals to rid your farm of pests and weeds, but they contribute enormously to ozone layer depletion. The surefire solution to get rid of pests and weeds is to apply natural methods. Just weed your farm manually and use alternative eco-friendly chemicals to alleviate pests.

2. Discourage Driving of Private Vehicles

The easiest technique to minimize ozone depletion is to limit the number of vehicles on the road. These vehicles emit a lot of greenhouse gases that eventually form smog, a catalyst in the depletion of the ozone layer.

3. Utilize Environmentally Friendly Cleaning Products

Most household cleaning products are loaded with harsh chemicals that find way to the atmosphere, eventually contributing to the degradation of the ozone layer. Use natural and environmentally friendly cleaning products to arrest this situation.

4. Prohibit the Use of Harmful Nitrous Oxide

The Montreal Protocol formed in 1989 helped a lot in the limitation of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). However, the protocol never covered nitrous oxide, which is a known harmful chemical that can destroy the ozone layer. Nitrous oxide is still in use today. Governments must take action now and outlaw nitrous oxide use to reduce the rate of ozone depletion.

References:

National Geographic
EPA
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