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The Process of Ozone Depletion

[Schematic of the ozone depletion process, steps 1-6]

The ozone depletion process begins when CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances (ODS) are emitted into the atmosphere(1). Winds efficiently mix the troposphere and evenly distribute the gases. CFCs are extremely stable, and they do not dissolve in rain. After a period of several years, ODS molecules reach the stratosphere, about 10 kilometers above the Earth's surface (2).

Strong UV light breaks apart the ODS molecule. CFCs, HCFCs, carbon tetrachloride, methyl chloroform, and other gases release chlorine atoms, and halons and methyl bromide release bromine atoms (3). It is these atoms that actually destroy ozone, not the intact ODS molecule. It is estimated that one chlorine atom can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules before it is removed from the stratosphere (4).

Ozone Cycle

Ozone is constantly produced and destroyed in a natural cycle, as shown in the above picture, courtesy of NASA GSFC. However, the overall amount of ozone is essentially stable. This balance can be thought of as a stream's depth at a particular location. Although individual water molecules are moving past the observer, the total depeth remains constant. Similarly, while ozone production and destruction are balanced, ozone levels remain stable. This was the situation until the past several decades.

Large increases in stratospheric chlorine and bromine, however, have upset that balance. In effect, they have added a siphon downstream, removing ozone faster than natural ozone creation reactions can keep up. Therefore, ozone levels fall.

Since ozone filters out harmful UVB radiation, less ozone means higher UVB levels at the surface. The more the depletion, the larger the increase in incoming UVB. UVB has been linked to skin cancer, cataracts, damage to materials like plastics, and harm to certain crops and marine organisms. Although some UVB reaches the surface even without ozone depletion, its harmful effects will increase as a result of this problem.

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