Preservation of the Ozone Layer

by Rumeysa Yilmaz

Illustration by Laia Goyena for Hiraya Zine.

Acting as Earth’s “sunscreen,” the ozone layer is what protects the planet from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. This barrier is located on the second layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, which is about 15 to 35 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The ozone layer is made up of ozone molecules that consist of three oxygen atoms (O₃). Its unstable structure makes it much more reactive, so it can easily form and break apart with the interaction of another compound. Without them, humans would be at a greater risk of skin cancer.

However, in the past few decades, scientists have observed a change that can have a dangerous effect on our planet — the thinning of the ozone layer in certain locations, mainly, due to a substance called chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs.

A CFC compound consists of carbon, chlorine, and fluorine and can be found in hair spray, fire extinguishers, and plastic products. When this molecule comes into contact with an ultraviolet ray, it releases chlorine, which can break apart one of the oxygen molecules from ozone, due to a chemical reaction, resulting in ozone layer damage called ozone holes.

How ozone depletion occurs when CFCs released into the environment interact with ultraviolet rays from the sun. Illustration by Socratic.

These holes are examined daily by NASA with satellite devices. Many scientists agree with Eastern Asia having an increase of CFC emissions, as 90% of the CFCs located in the atmosphere are released by industrialized countries in the Northern hemisphere.

After learning about these harmful effects and the increasing emission of CFC molecules into the atmosphere, it was time to take action.

Individuals from a multitude of countries gathered for an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol; this was the first environmental treaty that focused on a global threat and aimed to reduce (and potentially eliminate) the production of nearly 100 man-made ozone-depleting products.

In 1989, the Montreal Protocol outlawed the production of ozone-depleting products. Developed and developing countries have equal, but specialized responsibilities; most importantly, all countries have measurable tasks. Arguably, this international collaboration focused on the protection of the ozone layer has been one of the most successful global agreements yet. And ever since 1986 — the year before the international ideas were agreed upon — the amount of chlorine in the atmosphere has been decreasing by 98%!

To conclude, it’s crucial to maintain the actions we have been following for the past decades to protect the Earth from going back to one of its previous stages. If not, the ozone layer can potentially start running out of ozone, resulting in a greater risk of skin cancer. We humans use sunscreen to protect ourselves from the UV rays, as the earth uses ozone molecules. Let’s protect our skin, while also protecting the planet.

The view of the Earth’s atmosphere from space. Photo by NASA.

#ARCHIVES: This article was previously published in Hiraya Zine Volume 1, Issue 2: Science for Society last September 2021. Download the zine for free here.

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