Good News! The Hole in the Ozone Layer Appears to Be Closing

New NASA satellite data confirms what other research has shown, namely that the hole in the ozone layer appears to be getting smaller.

The ozone is crucial for us here on Earth because it shields us from some of the Sun’s most damaging radiation. In the 1980s it was confirmed that a host of chemicals like CFCs that we had been using in manufacturing and, in particular in aerosols, had been breaking down that ozone layer, creating several holes including a worryingly large hole over the Arctic. In the long term our CFC use threatened to destroy this vital shield completely if we did not act.

Fortunately, and in a move that might seem rather rare today, politicians did listen to scientists and in 1989 the Montreal Protocol was brought into force as an international agreement to dramatically cut down on CFCs and begin phasing them out entirely. The Montreal Protocol wasn’t and isn’t a perfect solution, as we’ve detailed previously here, but it was at least a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to gauge the impact of our ozone saving efforts–that is, until now.

A new report based on data gained via NASA’s AURA satellite shows a long term trend that, barring unforeseen hiccups, should see the hole over the Arctic shrink to less than 8 million square miles within the next thirty years. At the moment the hole is about 12 million square smiles, so that represents a rapid rate of repair. What’s more, the rate of repair suggests that the hole could be entirely gone by the end of the 21st century.

The following animation video illustrates how the ozone layer was damaged, and gives an insight into how much we have managed to shrink that large ozone hole today:

NASA has also been able to calculate what might have happened if we hadn’t enacted the Montreal Protocol, and those calculations suggest that today we would be on course for an ozone depletion level of some 67 percent within the next 50 years. That would have meant more exposure to the Sun’s dangerous radiation and, as a result, an almost certain rise in cancer rates among all animals. (For those particularly interested in the details, the model predicts a somewhat surprising collapse of the ozone layer above the tropics, which would hasten overall depletion levels.)

But we did act, and we did have a meaningful impact on this problem. This is excellent news, and it should inform how we approach other environmental issues, a sentiment that has been championed by scientists across the world including a man who was part of the team that confirmed our ozone layer depletion problem three decades ago, Jon Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. Shanklin issued a stark warning in April, saying that where once the major environmental issue was ozone layer depletion, today it is greenhouse gasses and, unfortunately, the world isn’t treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves:

“Yes, an international treaty was established fairly quickly to deal with the ozone hole, but really the main point about its discovery was that it shows how incredibly rapidly we can produce major changes to our atmosphere and how long it takes for nature to recover from them,” Shanklin told the Guardian.“Clearly, we still do not understand the full consequences of what we did then because we are still inflicting major changes on the atmosphere. Then it was chlorofluorocarbons; today it is greenhouse gases.”

With ozone depletion we were, in some ways, fortunate because the action that was required of us was relatively (if not politically) simple: we had to stop using products that release ozone depleting gases like CFCs. That enabled us to take robust action relatively quickly. Even so, NASA is predicting it will take until the end of the century before the ozone hole over the Arctic is fully repaired.

Shanklin says that even if we could can sustain and improve on global cooperative efforts to tackle greenhouse gasses and climate change–which, with a Republican controlled Congress in the US and a climate change-skeptic Tory government in the UK, to name just a few problems, isn’t a guarantee–it will take many more years if not centuries before we can reverse the damage we have caused by contributing to changing the Earth’s climate. Even so, we have to commit to doing that because otherwise the problem is only going to get worse.

Fortunately, with climate talks coming up at the end of the year and an agenda that is for perhaps the first time really putting the issue of greenhouse gasses at the top of our global issues, we may be about to make meaningful progress. What the ozone layer fight shows is that together our governments are capable of meeting environmental challenges, and we’ll need more of that same robust action as was shown in the ozone depletion fight if we are to get a handle on greenhouse gases and climate change.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

116 comments

Mark Donner
Mark Donner1 years ago

And all these humans, who are the dumbest life form in the universe, keep claiming that pumping 30 billion tons of CO2 into the upper atmosphere yearly has "no effect". "Ignore it and whatever you're complaining about will go away". Even a microbe is more intelligent than human.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

Miya E.,
Very cute. Missed that in the article.

On a positive note, recent work has suggested that the shrinking ozone hole may have played a role in the increasing sea ice.

http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JCLI-D-13-00590.1

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Miya Eniji
Miya Eniji2 years ago

Anyone else catch this : [at the moment, the hole is about 12 million square smiles...]^^
How R square smiles measured ??
Scientific data should be expressed in metric terms ( sq. km. in this case) but...
square smiles R a new system 4 me ! How about U ?

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Pat P.
Pat P2 years ago

Whether this prediction is accurate or not, does not excuse us from reducing fossil fuel use, methane and chemical pollutants into our atmosphere--and dealing with global warming!

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D E Martin
D E Martin2 years ago

Good

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Holli DuShane
Holli DuShane2 years ago

I hope this is accurate.

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Bob P.
Bob month away P2 years ago

interesting...thanks

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Janis K.
Janis K2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Isa JOSSERAND HURE
Isa J2 years ago

Hope it is true but il is not only a victory !

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