New NASA study offers first direct proof that the ozone hole is recovering thanks to the Montreal Protocol treaty and the international ban on CFCs.
In the 1980s, the discovery of the “ozone hole” was all over the news and represented the first real global climate change challenge. It was basically the trailer for an environmental nightmare to prepare us for the specter of global climate change. As the ozone layer acts as a protective blanket against the most harmful wavelengths of ultraviolet light, the so-called (and then-expanding) hole over Antarctica brought with it visions of skin cancer, sunburn, cataracts, and havoc to plants and animals, for starters.
The concerns that we could lose this protective layer led to the adoption of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was ratified in 1987. Back then everyone still believed in science and chemical companies had less power than today. The international treaty banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and related compounds. CFCs are long-lived chemical compounds that eventually rise into the stratosphere, where they are broken apart by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, releasing chlorine atoms that go on to destroy ozone molecules, as NASA explains. They were used as refrigerants and solvents, and in aerosol sprays and blowing agents for foams and packing materials. The pact was signed by 197 countries. Later amendments to the Montreal Protocol completely phased out production of CFCs.
With the latest research NASA confirms the international treaty a success in staving off the demise of the ozone layer. Using measurements from the agency’s Aura satellite, scientists have been looking at the Antarctic ozone hole’s chlorine over the last several years, watching as the amount slowly decreased. The hole has been trending smaller, but as temperature has an effect on its size, it’s been difficult to claim definitive evidence that it’s actually on the mend.
The new study is the first time anyone accurately measured chlorine levels inside the ozone hole, confirming that the Montreal Protocol is indeed doing its job, says NASA.
Lead author of the study, Susan Strahan, an atmospheric scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, describes the work here and success of the treaty here:
It’s a slow recovery, but it is recovery and it validates that we can turn back the tide of harm we’re doing to the planet if we work together. While the ozone hole is still there, the scientists believe that it will continue to recover slowly as CFCs leave the atmosphere. “CFCs have lifetimes from 50 to 100 years, so they linger in the atmosphere for a very long time,” says Anne Douglass, a fellow atmospheric scientist at Goddard and the study’s co-author. “As far as the ozone hole being gone, we’re looking at 2060 or 2080. And even then there might still be a small hole.”
This research shows we should understand the problems in a lot of detail. Then we can collaboratively agree on how to resolve it. What helped with this challenge is that it was broken down to something specific. That can focus everybody towards solutions, more than generic statements such a a climate changes is accelerated by human impacts.
Tips for environmental challenges:
- Breakdown the problem to the lowest level of detail
- Collaboratively agree on those problem statements
- Find solutions for each of those problem statements
Mark van Engelen is founder Nya Sustainability Consulting, a consulting firm helping organizations implement sustainability. Services include sustainability strategy development, zero waste planning, GHG emissions calculating and planning, energy/water management, employee engagement and guidance in B Corp and carbon neutral certification.