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Ozone Hole the Size of North America Forms Above Antarctica

The substantial ozone hole seen in 2023 over Antarctica is among the largest on record
The substantial ozone hole seen in 2023 over Antarctica is among the largest on record. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Through recent data, satellites have revealed the largest-ever gaps in the ozone layer above Antarctica. The ozone layer acts as a shield in the sky, located between nine and eighteen miles (fifteen to thirty kilometers) above ground.

This layer of the atmosphere, which is especially important because it stops the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from reaching Earth, contains lots of ozone, a special kind of oxygen containing three atoms instead of two.

The ozone layer is so fundamental to the protection of all life, including that of humans, because the sun’s direct rays would otherwise be too dangerous for various lifeforms.

Large gaps in ozone layer

In 1985, scientists made a surprising discovery. They found that big gaps were showing up in the ozone layer above Earth’s polar areas.

They also discovered that a chemical called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which was commonly used in things such as spray cans, packaging materials, and refrigerators of the time, were reacting with the ozone in our atmosphere. This chemical reaction was causing the ozone to thin out and impact its protective qualities.

In response to this problem, in 1989, countries all over the world came together and decided to ban CFCs. This ban helped the ozone layer slowly recover.

Increasing holes in the ozone layer despite the CFC ban

Although the banning of CFCs helped the ozone layer recover to an extent, there are still holes that pop up above the polar regions. This usually happens during the winter months in each hemisphere.

During these cold times, something called polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) form. These are super high clouds composed of quite tiny ice crystals, which sometimes look as colorful as a rainbow. These clouds make the already-thin ozone layer above the poles even thinner.

This year, the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica was at its biggest on September 16th. It covered a whopping ten million square miles, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

How big is the hole in the ozone layer?

To give you an idea of how huge this is, it is about the same size as all of North America, three times bigger than Brazil, equal to the landmass of both Russia and China combined, and about twice as big as Antarctica itself.

“The 2023 ozone hole got off to an early start and has grown rapidly since mid-August,” explained Antje Inness, a scientist at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. She also mentioned that this year’s ozone hole is one of the largest ever observed.

Huge hole in ozone linked to volcanic eruption

Scientists believe the huge hole in the ozone layer might be linked to the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano. This volcano exploded in January 2022, and it was so powerful that it was as if more than a hundred Hiroshima bombs had gone off. It also created the tallest eruption plume ever recorded.

In August 2022, a different group of scientists issued a warning. They reported that the eruption could result in certain issues for the ozone layer. This happened because the eruption shot more than fifty million tons of water up into the upper part of the atmosphere.

To put this into perspective, it’s like having a ten percent increase in the amount of water in the atmosphere. These scientists thought the extra water vapor could make the ozone layer unstable after it breaks down into charged molecules called ions, which react with ozone in a way similar to what CFCs do.

Water vapor also raises the chances of polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) forming in the polar regions, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

More explanations for the gap in the ozone layer

Holes in the ozone layer above both the North and South Poles change naturally, and this could also be a factor in this year’s big gap. For instance, in 2019, the ozone hole above Antarctica was the smallest ever recorded.

This was because temperatures in that region were unusually warm, and this stopped polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) from forming. However, from 2020 to 2022, the ozone hole grew bigger each year as it became colder once again.

Additionally, this year, there was an El Niño event, which might have had a bit of an impact on the temperatures around the poles. However, experts are not completely certain about the connection between El Niño and these changes right now.

Is there still hope for the ozone to recover?

Even though the ozone hole we’re seeing now is one of the biggest ever, there’s no need to be overly worried, according to researchers from the European Space Agency (ESA). The space below the ozone hole is empty for the most part, and not many people live there. Furthermore, it is expected to close up in just a few months.

The good news is that if we keep the levels of CFCs low, which we’ve been doing since they were banned, the ozone layer should completely recover by the year 2050. Hence, while the situation may look concerning, there’s a plan in place to fix this in due time.

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