Ozone hole shrinks due to warmer than average air temperature

The average hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer is 3.6 million square miles.

The ozone hole near the South Pole is at its smallest since it was discovered, but that is more due to freakish Antarctic weather than efforts to cut down on pollution, NASA has said.

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This autumn, the average hole in Earth’s protective ozone layer is 3.6 million square miles, down from a peak of 10.3 million square miles in 2006.

This year’s hole is even smaller than the one first discovered in 1985.

“That’s really good news,” NASA scientist Paul Newman said. “That means more ozone over the hemisphere, less ultraviolet radiation at the surface.”

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Earth’s ozone layer shields life on the surface from harmful solar radiation, but man-made chlorine compounds that can last in the air for 100 years eat away at the ozone, creating thinning and a gap over the Southern Hemisphere.

The hole reaches its peak in September and October and disappears by late December until the next spring in the Southern Hemisphere.

The 1987 international Montreal Protocol — the only United Nations treaty ratified by every country on Earth — banned many of the chlorine compounds used in refrigerants and aerosols.

The ban resulted in a slightly smaller ozone hole in recent years, but this year’s dramatic shrinking is not from those efforts, Mr Newman said.

“It’s just a fluke of the weather,” said University of Colorado atmospheric scientist Brian Toon.

Chlorine in the air needs cold temperatures in the stratosphere and clouds to convert into a form of the chemical that eats ozone, Mr Newman said. The clouds go away when it warms up.

But this September and October, the southern polar vortex — a swirl of cold high-speed winds around the pole — started to break down.

At 12 miles high in the atmosphere, temperatures were 16°C warmer than average. Winds dropped from a normal 161mph to about 67mph, NASA reported.

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This is something that happens on occasion, occurring in 1988 and 2002, but not this extreme, Mr Newman said.

Reader Q&A: How many man-made gases are destroying the ozone layer?

Asked by: Rob Munton, Poole

The main ozone-depleting gases are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). The Montreal Protocol, which came into force in 1989, lists 56 CFCs and 34 HCFCs, and production of almost all of them is now completely banned. There are a few exceptions where there isn’t an alternative, such as the fire suppression systems on submarines.

However, a study at the University of East Anglia found three new CFCs and one HCFC that have recently been released into the atmosphere. The amounts aren’t large – less than one per cent of the total release of ozone-depleting compounds before the Montreal Protocol was signed. But the source of these new compounds is currently unknown and the levels of two of them are rising rapidly. These chemicals will also take several decades to break down naturally, so they will continue to be a problem, even if their production is stopped immediately.

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