Ozone Layer of The Atmosphere: What is it?
With pollution being such a hot topic, people are starting to take notice about the serious issues. One of these very serious issues, that has actually been a pressing situation for a while now, is our ozone layer of the atmosphere. Most people are aware of the depletion of the ozone layer. However, there are many things that are affecting it. Different types of pollution that are causing the issue and the many problems stemming from it.
First question on the minds of some people is probably, what is the ozone layer? Well, the ozone layer of our atmosphere is basically a shield. It is a layer of naturally occurring gas in Earth’s stratosphere that absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. The thickness of this layer varies depending on the geographic location. Ozone is a highly reactive molecule, containing three oxygen atoms. It is in a constant state of creation and break down. The total amount of ozone gas has stayed fairly stable over the decades.
What does our ozone layer do? Without our ozone, all of the sun’s UV radiation would rain down on Earth. The type of UV light that the ozone layer absorbs is called UVB. UVB is linked to many harmful effects including skin cancer, cataracts, as well as damage to crops and marine life. The processes of the ozone layer have become very well understood and predictable. Each natural reduction of the ozone levels has been followed by a recovery, until recently. Starting around the 1970s, scientific evidence has shown the ozone layer is being depleted more rapidly than it can recover itself.
*Fun fact: Ozone gas is extremely helpful when it is miles away from us. When car exhaust produces ozone gas near the surface of the Earth, it pollutes the air and causes serious health problems.
How Does The Ozone Layer Work
Ozone gas forms in the stratosphere when UV light hits the oxygen gas. This is known as the ozone-oxygen cycle. Like basically everything on earth, ozone gas goes through a constant cycle. This cycle follows this process:
- The cycle’s first stage is when short wave UV light from the sun hits a molecule of oxygen. The light has so much energy, it breaks the oxygen bond which creates two oxygen atoms. Through this process, the oxygen basically absorbs some of the UV light. However, a significant amount of longer wave UV light gets through. This is where is ozone comes into play.
- This second stage, both of the remaining oxygen atoms bond with two other oxygen molecules. This creates two separate ozone molecules.
- The third stage of the cycle, the ozone gas breaks into one oxygen molecule and an oxygen atom, thus absorbing almost all of the remaining UV light.
This absorption happens because the molecules create an exothermic reaction with the UV light. This means that the oxygen and ozone convert the light into heat. The ozone and oxygen gases are very effective because they end up absorbing almost 98% of all the UV light.
UV Light Radiation
It is common knowledge that UV light is what turns our skin a nice bronze color in the summer. What most people, men and women, strive for. The perfect tan. However, like everything else, too much of something turns out to be very harmful. This harm well extends just getting a sunburn and looking like a lobster (or a leather handbag if it’s really bad.) Excess exposure to UV light can actually lead to cancer, cataracts, and further damage to the body’s immune system.
- Sunburn- Almost everyone surely has gotten a sunburn before. Depending on how bad it is, it can be extremely uncomfortable. The UV radiation causes an increase in blood flow in the skin which is caused by a dilation of the superficial blood vessels. However, if the sunburn is bad enough, it can cause blistering and a condition called sun poisoning. Sun poisoning is an extreme case of sunburn which is caused by an inflammation of the skin by UV radiation. Symptoms include swelling, large blisters, fever, nausea, dehydration, fainting, and rapid pulse and breathing.
- Increased Aging- No, this does not mean that UV radiation will cause you to age faster. But it may make you look like it. Exposure to a lot of UV radiation can cause dryness, increase in wrinkles, accentuated skin furrows, sagging, loss of elasticity, and mottled pigmentation. These degenerative effects of the radiation on your skin accumulate over time can become irreversible.
- Suppression of Immune System- UV radiation can also cause your immune system to work much slower, if at all. This condition is called immunosuppression which prevents your body from rejecting tumors. As a result, cancer can more easily develop in your body. With UV radiation, skin cancer and melanoma, is very common.
- Skin Cancer- Skin cancer is one of the most common results from excess exposure to UV radiation. There are numerous kinds of skin cancer, including: nonmelanoma skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Exposure to UV radiation can cause damage to DNA, as well as suppresses your immune system, as mentioned before.
- Melanoma- Probably the most known form of skin cancer and the most common. Melanoma skin cancer is tumors that develop on the skin. They also have the tendency to metastasize and can end in death. This is more likely in melanoma than it is in other nonmelanoma cancers like basal and squamous cell carcinomas.
- Basal Cell and Squamous Cell Carcinoma- BCC makeup 80% of all nonmelanoma cases. These tumors grow very slowly and rarely metastasize. This cancer is most commonly found on the head and neck areas, where sun exposure is more likely. This form of cancer is more common in people less than 50 years old. SCC makeup 20% of all nonmelanoma cancers and almost 100% occur in people older than 50 years old. Squamous Cell Carcinoma is also more deadly than Basal Cell, resulting in 75% of deaths from nonmelanoma cancers. Most likely in relation to the age of the people with this type of cancer.
It is common knowledge that the ozone is becoming less and less effective. In fact, it is depleting at a much faster rate than it can naturally recover. With this deterioration comes an excess of UVB radiation reaching the Earth. As previously mentioned, there are many human health risks with excess UV radiation. The marine life is affected as well. UVB radiation hurts the reproductive cycle of phytoplankton. These are single cell organisms like algae. Even though these organisms are at the bottom of the food chain, which might make them seem very unimportant, they are actually extremely important. Earth has systems and cycles in place to ensure that everything works smoothly. If something is set off balance, it affects the whole system. The reduction in phytoplankton will in turn lower the population of many other animal species. Excess UVB has also shown to affect certain fish, shrimp, and crabs.
There are many things that factor into the depletion of the ozone. One of the biggest factors are spray aerosols. These aerosols contain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). When these chemicals reach the upper atmosphere, the UV rays cause them to break down. One of the byproducts of this breakdown is the substance chlorine. These chlorine particles react so violently with the oxygen atoms in the ozone that it actually rips apart the molecules. The Environmental Protection Agency says that one atom of chlorine can destroy more than 100,000 ozone molecules.
Hole in the Shield
One of the biggest issues with our ozone right now, and for a while, is the “hole” that has formed over Antarctica. This hole was actually found in 1980, which at the time was only a thinning of the layer. This region is a part of the ozone that suffers from extreme depletion. This is caused by an increasing amount of concentrated chemicals in the stratosphere. Mostly coming from spray cans and refrigerants. So the stuff in hairspray. These chemicals are called Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). They can stay in the atmosphere for decades to over a century.
These CFCs are the same chemicals that are responsible for destroying the rest of the ozone layer. The reason they have such a strong effect in this region is that the CFCs attach to the ice particles in the extremely cold climate. When the sun comes out in the polar spring, the ice particles melt releasing the ozone depleting molecules all at once. This hole forms over Antarctica every September. In 2016, the hole grew to around 8.9 million square miles before starting to recover. Since 1991, scientists have observed the hole. On average it reaches about 10 million square miles.
Can We Save The Ozone
While the ozone is not is not a major cause of global warming, it is still linked. Like mentioned before, too much of one thing is never good. However, there are things that we can do to help repair the damage done to the ozone layer. Actually, the government has placed bans on many products against CFCs. By avoiding products that have those damaging chemicals or related chemicals, along with pressing the government for more action, we can all help mother nature repair its atmospheric shield, possibly by the end of this century.
Products to Avoid
A product that you should check and avoid is the (some) fire extinguishers. Of course, these devices are mandatory in every building, however, some of these include chemicals as ingredients. These chemicals are halon or halogenated hydrocarbon. There are plenty of the same product without these damaging chemicals.
An obvious product to avoid is any aerosol with CFCs. Even though bans are in effect and many companies either done away completely or reduce them, it does not hurt to check. These products include hairsprays, deodorants, and household cleaning products. To be extra safe, try to buy pump-action bottles over the compressed air cans.
Another good way to help is to get rid of any refrigerators, freezers and air conditioning units that predate 1995. These appliances were produced using CFCs to function and if they leak, those chemicals are leased into the environment. In addition to being harmful to the ozone layer, they are also very damaging to the environment. Also, replacing them with more modern units will also likely save you a lot of money because newer units are made to be better at conserving energy.
Buying lumber, wood products, and plywood that is not treated with methyl bromide is another habit you should get into. This pesticide will off gas elemental bromine that is another chemical that depletes the ozone layer. Check the labels of any wood product. HT means heat treated while MB means it was treated with chemicals.
Do not underestimate your influence on the people around you. Especially those in power. By asking your local farmers and political representatives to advocate for more efficient fertilizer, the word may very well spread. Nitrogen rich fertilizers promote plant growth. Unfortunately, nitrous oxide fertilizers are also very damaging to both the ecosystems and the ozone. Do not be afraid to talk with your state representatives. It is our job to show them what the people are concerned about. They have their own agendas but their first responsibility is to the people. If we do not talk and voice our concerns, we are not doing our job in government.
Habits to Change for the Better
Driving less is an obvious change. 5% of all nitrous oxide pollution comes from vehicles. Of course, cars also emit a lot of carbon dioxide by burning gasoline which is a big contributor to global warming. By taking advantage of alternative methods of transportation, you are actually helping a lot. You can carpool, use public transit, walk where you can, ride a bike which is also a great workout, or just buy a hybrid or electric car.
Another habit to start is eating less meat or buy organic meat. Mass farms create a lot of pollution in the form of manure and deforestation. By either buying organic products or cutting out meat, you are lessening the dependence on those factory farms. In addition to buying organic, also buy local! Not only are local markets most likely closer to you, they also usually feature all organic products.
Do this and more can help repair all of the damage that is done to both our environment and the ozone layer. Start caring for the Earth and it will care for us.