Scientists saw something missing in the skies over the North Pole this spring, and it wasn’t Santa or his reindeer. It was ozone — an invisible gas that protects Earth and everything on it from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
The ozone’s thickest portion is high up in a section known as the stratosphere. The thickness of the ozone layer changes throughout the year; sometimes there’s more ozone and sometimes less. Scientists say that in the spring of 2011, there was less ozone high above the Arctic than ever before. The envelope had grown thin.
The scientists who measured the loss called their discovery an “Arctic ozone hole.” Not all scientists like calling it a hole, because some amount of ozone remained. No matter which words are used, the ozone layer was way low. And less ozone lets more harmful UV rays reach Earth’s surface.
“It was significantly worse than anything we have ever seen,” Geir Braathen told Science News. Braathen, an atmospheric chemist who works at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, knows about the new study but did not work on it. Atmospheric chemists study the molecules and chemical reactions that happen in the sky.
Usually, news about the ozone layer concerns the sky over the southern hemisphere. Every year, a hole in the ozone layer opens up over Antarctica. Braathen told Science News that every spring, 70 percent of the ozone above the icy continent goes away, and in some high swatches of the Antarctic’s stratosphere there’s no ozone at all.
Ozone over northern regions doesn’t decrease as much as ozone over Antarctica. In the new study, however, the scientists say that in 2011, the Arctic drop in ozone started to look similar to Antarctica’s.
“The magnitude of the [Arctic] loss is comparable to that in the early Antarctic ozone holes in the mid-1980s,” Michelle Santee told Science News. Santee, who worked on the new study, is an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Right now, Santee says, the conditions in the northern stratosphere are nowhere near as bad as those in the south.
Scientists have learned the recipe for how to make ozone disappear from the atmosphere: Combine sunlight, a long period of cold temperatures and swirling winds that surround a patch of the stratosphere and keep fresh ozone out. Then add special clouds that help other molecules gobble up ozone. This year, all four of those ingredients came together over the Arctic, Nathaniel Livesey told Science News. Livesey, like Santee, worked on the new study and is an atmospheric scientist at JPL.
It might have been a random coincidence. On the other hand, some scientists worry that the situation will get worse as Earth’s surface warms. There’s no reason to suspect it won’t get worse, Ross Salawitch told Science News. Salawitch is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park.
“I consider this to be a ‘big deal,’” he said.
ozone A colorless, toxic gas with a strong odor. It differs from normal oxygen in having three atoms in each molecule.
ozone layer A layer in Earth’s stratosphere at an altitude of about 10 km (6.2 miles) containing a high concentration of ozone, which absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth from the sun.
radiation Energy that moves from one place to another as electromagnetic waves or as moving particles. Radiation may be heat, light or electricity.
ultraviolet radiation Radiation with waves shorter than violet light, but not as short or energetic as X-rays.
atmosphere The envelope of gases that surrounds a planet.