The release of CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere through human activities has caused a massive hole in the ozone layer right above Antarctica and if unchecked, melting icecaps may inundate several regions of the earth in the future.
What is Ozone and Where Is It Found in The Earth’s Atmosphere?
Ozone is a gas with a pungent odor whose molecule contains three oxygen atoms. At about 6–10 miles above the Earth’s surface and extending up to 30 miles, in a region of space called the stratosphere, you will find 90% ozone. The stratospheric region with the highest ozone concentration is commonly known as the “ozone layer”. The remaining ozone, about 10%, is found in the troposphere, which is the lowest region of the atmosphere, between Earth’s surface and the stratosphere.
Ozone at ground level in the troposphere is bad because it causes photochemical smog. The smog results when ultra-violet light falls on and reacts with nitrogen oxide from vehicle exhausts. Because of this, Ozone affects lung function, aggravates asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases.
On the other hand, ozone in the stratosphere performs a very useful function by acting as a blanket that blocks most of the sun’s high-frequency ultraviolet rays. These UV rays can cause skin cancer and cataracts in humans, as well as reproductive problems in several forms of life including even the single-celled phytoplankton at the bottom of the ocean food chain.
How Does Ozone Form in the Atmosphere?
When ultraviolet light strikes oxygen molecules containing two oxygen atoms (O2), it splits them into individual oxygen atoms (atomic oxygen), which then combines with unbroken O2 to create ozone, O3. Being unstable, this ozone once again splits into a molecule of O2 and an atom of atomic oxygen under the action of ultraviolet light. This continuing process called the ozone-oxygen cycle.
The ozone layer is very effective at screening out UV-B; Nevertheless, some UV-B, particularly at its longest wavelengths, reaches the surface. Ozone cannot stop UV-A, the longer wavelength ultraviolet radiation which reaches the earth’s surface. However, this type of UV radiation is significantly less harmful to DNA.
The thickness of the ozone layer varies widely throughout the world, being smaller near the equator and larger towards the poles. It also varies with season, being in general thicker during the spring and thinner during the autumn in the northern hemisphere.
In May 1985 scientists with the British Antarctic Survey announced the discovery of a huge hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. They announced that Ozone levels over the northern hemisphere had been dropping by 4% per decade. They described the larger seasonal drops in the ozone levels around the south pole as a ozone hole.