Long-term satellite observations reveal that Earth’s ozone has been strengthening following international agreements to protect this vital layer of the atmosphere.
According to the ozone sensor on Europe’s MetOp weather satellite, the hole over Antarctica in 2012 was the smallest in the last 10 years. The instrument continues the long-term monitoring of atmospheric ozone started by its predecessors on the ERS-2 and Envisat satellites.
Since the beginning of the 1980s, an ozone hole has developed over Antarctica during the southern spring—September to November—resulting in a decrease in ozone concentration of up to 70 percent. Ozone depletion is more extreme in Antarctica than at the North Pole because high wind speeds cause a fast-rotating vortex of cold air, leading to extremely low temperatures. Under these conditions, human-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have a stronger effect on the ozone, depleting it and creating the infamous hole.
Over the Arctic, the effect is far less pronounced because the northern hemisphere’s irregular landmasses and mountains normally prevent the build-up of strong circumpolar winds. Reduced ozone over the southern hemisphere means that people living there are more exposed to cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation.
International agreements on protecting the ozone layer, particularly the Montreal Protocol, have stopped the increase of CFC concentrations, and a drastic fall has been observed since the mid-1990s. However, the long lifetimes of CFCs in the atmosphere mean it may take until the middle of this century for the stratosphere’s chlorine content to go back to values like those of the 1960s.
Image courtesy of the European Space Agency and BIRA/IASB—RT Solutions Inc.