Ozone layer hole. Image credit: NASA

Ozone Success Story: NASA Video of Enviro Action That Worked

Article written: 20 Mar , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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Imagine the year 2065. Two-thirds of Earth’s ozone is gone. The infamous ozone hole over Antarctica is a year-round fixture with a twin over the North Pole. People living in mid-latitude cities like Washington, D.C., get sunburned after five minutes. DNA-mutating UV radiation is up 650 percent, with likely harmful effects on plants, animals and human skin cancer rates.

Such is the world we would have inherited if 193 nations had not agreed to ban ozone-depleting substances, according to atmospheric chemists at NASA, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in Bilthoven. The researchers have unveiled new computer simulations this week of a worldwide disaster that humans managed to avoid.

In retrospect, the researchers say, the Montreal Protocol was a “remarkable international agreement that should be studied by those involved with global warming and the attempts to reach international agreement on that topic.”

ozone-simulation

This time series from the ozone "World Avoided" model shows the concentration of ozone over the South Pole at four key times. Reds represent normal to high concentrations; blues show depleted areas. Credit: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio

Ozone is Earth’s natural sunscreen, absorbing and blocking most of the incoming UV radiation from the sun and protecting life from DNA-damaging radiation. The gas is naturally created and replenished by a photochemical reaction in the upper atmosphere where UV rays break oxygen molecules into individual atoms that then recombine into three-part molecules (O3). As it is moved around the globe by upper level winds, ozone is slowly depleted by naturally occurring atmospheric gases. It is a system in natural balance.

But chlorofluorocarbons — invented in 1928 as refrigerants and as inert carriers for chemical sprays — upset that balance. Researchers discovered in the 1970s and 1980s that while CFCs are inert at Earth’s surface, they are quite reactive in the stratosphere (10 to 50 kilometers altitude, or 6 to 31 miles), where roughly 90 percent of the planet’s ozone accumulates. UV radiation causes CFCs and similar bromine compounds in the stratosphere to break up into elemental chlorine and bromine that readily destroy ozone molecules. 

In the 1980s, ozone-depleting substances opened a wintertime “hole” over Antarctica and opened the eyes of the world to the effects of human activity on the atmosphere.  In January 1989, the Montreal Protocol went into force, the first-ever international agreement on regulation of chemical pollutants.

In the new study, published online in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Goddard scientist Paul Newman and his team simulated “what might have been” if chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and similar chemicals were not banned. The simulation used a comprehensive model that included atmospheric chemical effects, wind changes, and radiation changes. The “World avoided” video can be viewed here in Quicktime (for more formats, go here).

By the simulated year 2020, 17 percent of all ozone is depleted globally. An ozone hole starts to form each year over the Arctic, which was once a place of prodigious ozone levels.

By 2040, global ozone concentrations fall below the same levels that currently comprise the “hole” over Antarctica. The UV index in mid-latitude cities reaches 15 around noon on a clear summer day, giving a perceptible sunburn in about 10 minutes. Over Antarctica, the ozone hole becomes a year-round fixture.

By the end of the model run in 2065, global ozone drops 67 percent compared to 1970s levels. The intensity of UV radiation at Earth’s surface doubles; at certain shorter wavelengths, intensity rises by as much as 10,000 times. Skin cancer-causing radiation soars.

“Our world avoided calculation goes a little beyond what I thought would happen,” said Goddard scientist and study co-author Richard Stolarski, who was among the pioneers of atmospheric ozone chemistry in the 1970s. “The quantities may not be absolutely correct, but the basic results clearly indicate what could have happened to the atmosphere.”

“We simulated a world avoided,” added Newman, “and it’s a world we should be glad we avoided.”

As it is, production of ozone-depleting substances was mostly halted about 15 years ago, though their abundance is only beginning to decline because the chemicals can reside in the atmosphere for 50 to 100 years. The peak abundance of CFCs in the atmosphere occurred around 2000, and has decreased by roughly 4 percent to date. Stratospheric ozone was depleted by 5 to 6 percent at middle latitudes, but has somewhat rebounded in recent years.


20 Responses

  1. Juan says

    That is a great succes story avoiding a global issue. Sadly, I don’t think Global Warming is going to go as well. I teach an IT introductory course in Mexican college for 1st year students from all programs and one of the projects uses global warming as a background to use certain IT tools. When I asked students to explain what they knew about Global Warming I was shocked to see how little they knew about it and how great were the misconceptions they had. Truly disappointing.

  2. Conic says

    What is even worse, we are now mostly ignoring several other (more serious) issues and only focusing on Global Warming, as the first comment shows. The average person only seem able to handle one science issue at a time. And Al Gore and other pseudo scientists are not helping.

    Juan how often do you think about toxic pollution (that is other than CO2), deforestation and dredging, or invasive species? At least the first two are more serious as a threat to life on Earth. The latter may not be, that is something we may learn more about in time.

  3. Juan says

    I accept I do not think of them as often, but like you say, it’s because I don’t hear/read about them as often as GW. Also, one issue that you did not mention and is probably the root of most of environmental issues is population growth. I remember this being a big issue back in the 80’s when I was a kid. Now it seems most people don’t know about it or think it has been solved. Even if it has slowed down (I don’t really know), we should already be going way down if we want to really address most of the other issues.

    BTW, another big issue: Water.

  4. Feenixx says

    Conic: it seems that deforestation and CO2 could actually be directly linked to each other. I found this while “playing with statistics”, but I haven’t got the time and resources for in-depth studies.

    – begin sarcastic mode :
    I wouldn’t worry about population growth. It’s a problem, but it is bound to repair itself as toxic pollution and global warming progress sufficiently
    : end sarcastic mode –

  5. Trippy says

    I think about toxic waste, water quality issues and invasive species on a daily basis, but then, it’s part of my job description to do so.

  6. ad says

    # Feenixx Says:
    March 20th, 2009 at 11:40 am

    – begin sarcastic mode :
    I wouldn’t worry about population growth. It’s a problem, but it is bound to repair itself as toxic pollution and global warming progress sufficiently
    : end sarcastic mode –

    Yeah, dream on.

  7. pantzov says

    juan said:

    …”one issue that you did not mention and is probably the root of most of environmental issues is population growth…”

    there can be no doubt about it. it’s hard to be objective when dealing with one’s own self, but an overabundance of any one species is an infestation and they don’t end well. the good news is that we are the first species with the forsight to actually do something about it. voluntary birth control. can we do it? not according to the pope 🙂

  8. D.R.R. says

    Maybe Hollywood can get a cue from the research teams involved and make a (in this case a what if/what could have been) global apocalypse dystopia flick about the Earth circa 2090 with no ozone layer since I saw a graph from another website showing the ozone plunging from the~30% line in the mid 2060’s to the 0 line by the early ’80’s. I’m sure it would be a real blockbuster, and by the way, to prevent people from getting nightmares, they can show tropical scenes from Hawaii, along with springtime in Paris and Yosemite scenes complete with futuristic flying cars at the very end after the closing of the movie’s last tragic scene with text about the Montreal Protocol and how it prevented the what-could-have-been or might-have-been we’d never want to have.

  9. star-grazer says

    We can spend Trillions of Euros/Dollars to clean up the atmosphere,but population growth is the most serious problems, because when the kids age, they will demand to burn/clear forests-use polluting devices, guess what, they have the right to do so.!!! At the other extreme, most European Countries had zero or losing population, but their promise to have cradle to grave care for their citizens by high-taxes through the years made these citizens to demand they will get it- however, zero growth and a ‘promise’ by past governments to take care of them has caught up with them!!!!. The population has aged and not enough workers are there to support past ‘promises’, so they had to import citizens from other countries to work to support their retirement, although the ‘old time’ residents of these countries really do not like these ‘ outsiders’
    This is something to think about- we can try to clean up the air, but the population still rises-even if zero growth started now, these kids will become adults and will demand a piece of the Earths resources.
    Governments can promise things now, but what will be the results in a generation!?!?

  10. kanawa says

    Correlation does not necessarily indicate causation

  11. Feenixx says

    @ ad:
    I think you misunderstood what I wrote, my apologies for not being clear enough. You might, in your own time, check this URL:

    en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sarcasm

  12. geokstr says

    Get a grip.

    Even this article admits that the “ozone hole” was shrinking long before the supposedly whopping CFC decrease of 4% was happening because of the wondrous magik of our politicians when they listen to the only real arbiters of knowledge, scientists with a leftist agenda. Studies show that the ozone layer is something that fluctuates naturally over time, just like another bugaboo of the posters on this site, so-called “global war…”, oops, sorry, “climate change”, soon to be renamed by the proponents as “Worldwide Disaster of Whatever Flavor We Can Concoct On Our Computers That is Inevitable Unless You Acknowledge Us as Your New Leaders.”

    Exactly the formula upon which every major religion was built, – fear of the unknown -technologically updated.

    Based on the almost miniscule amount that CFC’s have been cut (remember, the article says they remain active in the atmosphere for 50-100 years), this is like saying that the little Dutch kid with his finger in the dike is the sole reason everyone else is dry, and unless we now bow down to the kid, we are all doomed to suffer disasters of all kinds.

    However, what we most likely have is another coincidence for the AGW crowd to fraudulently crow about. They can now claim that, see, we, us all-knowing scientists, have held back the tides with our finger. If we just turn over control of our entire world economy to algore and the nutball Hansen, reduce our standard of living back to the Stone Age, kill off 80% of our population, and allow BIg Brother to control our thoughts, all will be well again with the world thanks to our new leaders.

    Science, science fiction, politics, religion and entertainment are so fraudulently intertwined now that it is difficult to tell what is real and which is merely fiction anymore.

  13. neoguru says

    geokstr – Hear, hear! Well said! Now we see “proof” that the world has been saved! OMG the pathetic science abounds! There was NEVER a time when there was ozone depletion in the northern hemisphere and the ozone hole over Antarctica has occurred every spring without fail since it was first detected. Whatever happened to reasonable science? by the way – CFC’s contain NO Bromine!

  14. neoguru says

    A word about simulations: There’s no denying they are a useful tool. But many are simply silly and are based on unproven and even untested assumptions. Those dealing with long term world-wide future phenomena are particularly prone to this kind of “research”. The more alarming the outcome the more likely the funding.

  15. Gerald Prazak says

    I feel that the weakening of the magnetosphere is more responsible for “global warming” than man made CO2 production. Volcanic activity (above and below oceans) produce more CO2 than all the autos and factories world wide. There are also springs, generating CO2 all the time and have been for centuries. The CO2 scare, while not beneficial, is highly overrated as a cause of global warming.

  16. marcellus says

    The bottom line is: “Don’t pollute planet Earth any more than you absolutely have to, plant trees and tell Al Gore to give that Nobel Prize from that nice German lady that saved all those Jewish kids during the Holocaust.”

    Those are three things almost everyone on Planet Earth is capable of.

  17. Aknauta says

    Too bad it’s a simulation…

  18. CodeTech says

    This has to be among the most ridiculous assertions I’ve seen made, anywhere on the internet.

    There is no direct link between CFCs and the Ozone layer, only an untested, unproven and likely unprovable hypothesis.

    If anything, this is a perfect example of how hype and misinformation caused a WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE to spend a WHOLE LOT OF MONEY on absolutely nothing.

    Apparently, the writer is not even aware that CFCs supposedly acted as a catalyst to break down O3, where supposedly one molecule could break down millions of O3 molecules during its time hovering around the amazing heights that this very heavy compound had somehow achieved… the Ozone Layer hype machine never said anything about “UV radiation causes CFCs and similar bromine compounds in the stratosphere to break up into elemental chlorine and bromine that readily destroy ozone molecules”.

    While we’re at it, is the writer also completely unaware that the very first images of the Ozone layer were the ones that caused this big panic? And that the Ozone layer is essentially at the exact same level now as it was then?

    This is feel-good junk masquerading as science.

  19. pantzov says

    CodeTech Says:
    March 21st, 2009 at 7:31 pm
    some angry stuff

    since they are no longer widely used, time will tell if you or the author is the person who is correct.

  20. pantzov says

    wow guys, holy crap. there are other products that work just as well for the most part and nobody really misses CFCs all that much.

    a “leftist agenda”???

    *sigh*

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