Whatever happened to the hole in the ozone layer?

11 Oct 2019
3 min read
Ozone hole

Repairing the ozone hole – the environmental success story that gives hope for climate change

On May 16th 1985, British scientists shocked the world when they announced they had discovered a hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole. The consequences of this finding were momentous: without an intact ozone layer to protect the planet from damaging radiation, the Earth stood to be pelted with extremely harmful UVB wavelengths of UV light, causing skin cancer, sunburn and cataracts.

The media jumped on the story, and soon the hole in the ozone layer became the posterchild for the environmental agenda. Celebrities of the day made impassioned appeals, schools held awareness-raising bake sales, and responsible manufacturers of the hole-causing culprit made a swift about-turn with their products. The offender? Aerosol chemicals. In 1974, scientists found that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in bottles of hairspray, cans of shaving cream and some domestic appliances, such as fridges, had ozone-destroying properties. A decade later, they had finally identified its consequences – and the damage was worse than they could have imagined.

Planet-saving legislation

But nowadays we don’t hear so much about the hole in the ozone layer – which is, in fact, less of a hole and more of a region of thinned ozone. And that’s due in part to one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation ever implemented: the Montreal Protocol. Enacted on 16th September 1989 (and celebrated every year with World Ozone Day), the treaty banned the use of numerous ozone-depleting substances in 197 countries. CFCs take a long time to phase out of the atmosphere – up to 100 years, in fact – but scientists believe that if the Montreal Protocol had never been signed the hole would have grown by 40% by 2013.

Plus, scientists also know a lot more about the ozone layer than they used to. They now know, for example, that the hole is actually related to a seasonal phenomenon that forms during Antarctica’s spring, when weather heats up and reactions between CFCs and ozone increase. As weather cools during Antarctic winter, the hole gradually recovers until the next year.

The ozone hole is healing

The good news – and news that certainly seemed unlikely when the hole was first discovered all those years ago – is that the ozone layer is firmly on the road to recovery. According to the United Nations Environment Agency, it’s on track to heal completely within our lifetime. Since 2000, parts of the ozone layer have recovered at a rate of 1%-3% every 10 years. If this momentum is kept up, the ozone layer around the northern hemisphere and mid-latitude regions will be completely healed by the 2030s, and the area over the South Pole repaired by the 2050s.

So what’s the bad news? Well for a start, protecting the planet requires constant vigilance including for the ozone hole. Earlier this year, for example, scientists detected a mysterious surge of CFC-11 emissions, later traced to a factories in China. Secondly, the world’s once reactive attitude to the ozone layer could actually have a negative impact on the current climate crisis. Since the issue of the hole was ‘fixed’ so quickly, many might assume it will be just as simple to address the increasingly severe problem of our warming world. But unfortunately, fossil fuels are used everywhere in heating, transport and power generation. Burning oil, coal and gas is the main source of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. It remains in the atmosphere for over a hundred years so global warming continues, long after the pollution has entered the atmosphere.

Hope for the future

Nonetheless, the global outcry surrounding the hole in the ozone layer and subsequent action taken against it does show that meaningful change can happen, especially when alternatives, such as renewable energy, exist. Therefore,  it’s vital to keep making noise about the climate crisis if we’re to stand any chance of halting rising temperatures. Strikes, petitions, lifestyle changes and shared awareness are crucial to keeping momentum around the climate conversation going. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be reading articles titled ‘How the battle to tackle climate change was won?’



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