An international ban on ozone-destroying chlorine that contains manmade chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has led to less ozone depletion, NASA scientists have reported. CFCs are long-living chemical compounds that eventually rise into the stratosphere, where they are broken apart by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, releasing chlorine atoms that then go on to destroy ozone molecules.
“We see very clearly that chlorine from CFCs is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it,” said lead author Susan Strahan, an atmospheric scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.
The ban on the CFCs resulted in about 20 percent less ozone depletion during the Antarctic winter from 2005 to 2016, while chlorine levels declined by an average 0.8 percent annually, the scientists said. Stratospheric ozone protects life on the planet by absorbing potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer and cataracts, suppress immune systems and damage plant life.
The Antarctic ozone hole forms during September in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter as the returning sun’s rays catalyse ozone destruction cycles involving chlorine and bromine that come primarily from CFCs. The change in ozone levels above Antarctica from the beginning to the end of southern winter — early July to mid-September — was computed daily from the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) aboard the Aura satellite every year from 2005 to 2016.
When ozone destruction is ongoing, chlorine is found in many molecular forms, most of which are not measured. But after chlorine has destroyed nearly all the available ozone, it reacts instead with methane to form hydrochloric acid — a gas measured by MLS.
The Antarctic ozone hole should continue to recover gradually as CFCs leave the atmosphere, but complete recovery will take decades, the researchers said, in the paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“CFCs have lifetimes from 50 to 100 years, so they linger in the atmosphere for a very long time,” said Anne Douglass, a fellow atmospheric scientist at the Goddard Centre. “As far as the ozone hole being gone, we’re looking at 2060 or 2080. And even then there might still be a small hole.”