The Ozone Hole

From 1985 to 1988, researchers studying atmospheric properties over the south pole continually noticed significantly reduced concentrations of ozone directly over the continent of Antarctica. For three years it was assumed that the ozone data was incorrect and was due to some type of instrument malfunction. In 1988, researchers finally realized their error and concluded that an enormous hole in the ozone layer had indeed developed over Antarctica. Examination of NASA satellite data later showed that the hole had begun to develop in the mid 1970's.

The ozone hole over Antarctica is formed by a slew of unique atmospheric conditions over the continent that combine to create an ideal environment for ozone destruction.

  • Because Antarctica is surrounded by water, winds over the continent blow in a unique clockwise direction creating a so called "polar vortex" that effectively contains a single static air mass over the continent. As a result, air over Antarctica does not mix with air in the rest of the earth's atmosphere. 
  • Antarctica has the coldest winter temperatures on earth, often reaching -110 F. These chilling temperatures result in the formation of polar stratospheric clouds (PSC's) which are a conglomeration of frozen H2O and HNO3. Due to their extremely cold temperatures, PSC's form an electrostatic attraction with CFC molecules as well as other halogenated compounds

As spring comes to Antarctica, the PSC's melt in the stratosphere and release all of the halogenated compounds that were previously absorbed to the cloud. In the antarctic summer, high energy photons are able to photolyze the halogenated compounds, freeing halogen radicals that then catalytically destroy O3. Because Antarctica is constantly surrounded by a polar vortex, radical halogens are not able to be diluted over the entire globe. The ozone hole develops as result of this process.

Resent research suggests that the strength of the polar vortex from any given year is directly correlated to the size of the ozone hole. In years with a strong polar vortex, the ozone hole is seen to expand in diameter, whereas in years with a weaker polar vortex, the ozone hole is noted to shrink