This is the current state of the ozone layer

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Simon Torkington, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • The ozone layer protects life on Earth from the sun’s most harmful rays.
  • The discovery of the ozone layer hole in the 1980s promoted successful international cooperation to phase out the use of harmful chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
  • Scientists say the ozone hole is continuing to shrink and could fully repair by 2050.

Back in the early 1980s, the fashion was for big hairdos held in place by clouds of hairspray.

What few people realised at the time, was that maintaining those gravity-defying styles was contributing to havoc high up in the stratosphere.

The problem was the aerosol cans that pumped out the vaporized hair lacquer. The sprays were pressurized with gases known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were silently tearing a giant hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole. CFCs were also widely used in air conditioning units and refrigerators.

But there is good news from scientists at NASA: the hole is getting smaller. So let’s head out into space for a closer look at what’s going on.

What is the ozone layer and why should I care about it?

The ozone layer is part of the stratosphere which lies 10-50 kilometres above the surface of the Earth. As NASA explains: “Ozone is a gas made up of three oxygen atoms.” As you can see in the infographic below, the ozone layer is fairly low down in the atmosphere.

For a simple gas, ozone plays a major role in the functioning of the Earth’s ecosystems. “Ozone protects life on Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation,” says NASA. “Ozone in the stratosphere absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Without ozone, the sun’s intense UV radiation would sterilize the Earth’s surface.”

What’s happening with the ozone hole?

In the final quarter of 2022, scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reported that the hole in the ozone layer is continuing to shrink. The hole lies above Antarctica and between 7 September and 13 October, 2022, it spanned an average area of 23.2 million square kilometres.

This is well below the average seen in 2006 when the hole size peaked at 27.5 million square kilometres.

The shrinking of the ozone hole continues a positive trend of recent decades, scientists have confirmed.

“Over time, steady progress is being made, and the hole is getting smaller,” says Paul Newman, chief scientist for Earth sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We see some wavering as weather changes and other factors make the numbers wiggle slightly from day to day and week to week. But overall, we see it decreasing through the past two decades.”

How did we manage to shrink the ozone hole?

The discovery of the ozone layer hole prompted urgent international efforts to reverse the damage. In 1987, countries around the world came together to sign the Montreal Protocol, which formalized the mission to protect and repair the ozone layer by rapidly reducing the volume of ozone depleting gases being released into the atmosphere. It’s the only UN treaty that has been ratified by all 198 UN member states.

The chart above shows CFCs have almost been completely phased out, declining from over 800,000 tonnes in 1989 to 156 tonnes in 2014. The use of other ozone depleting gases has been reduced significantly and work is under way to go further. The Montreal Protocol maps the total phase-out of all ozone depleting gases by 2047, as illustrated below.


How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Nature and Climate accelerates action on climate change and environmental sustainability, food systems, the circular economy and value chains, and the future of international development.

  • Through the Global Plastic Action Partnership, the Forum is bringing together government, business and civil society to shape a more sustainable world by eradicating plastic pollution.
  • Global companies are collaborating through the Forum’s initiative to support 1 trillion trees by 2030, with over 30 companies having already committed to conserve, restore and grow more than 3.6 billion trees in over 60 countries.
  • Through a partnership with the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and over 50 global businesses, the Forum is encouraging companies to join the First Movers Coalition and invest in innovative green technologies to enable net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • The Forum is bringing global leaders together to reduce the environmental impact of value chains and make the $4.5 trillion circular economy opportunity a reality. The African Circular Economy Alliance is funding circular economy entrepreneurs and circular economy activities in Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa, while the Circular Electronics in China project is helping companies reduce and recycle 50% of e-waste by 2025.
  • Since launching in 2020, the Forum’s open innovation platform UpLink has welcomed over 40,000 users who are working on more than 30 challenges crowdsourcing solutions to the climate crisis.
  • More than 1000 partners from the private sector, government and civil society are working together through the 2030 Water Resources Group to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. The group has facilitated close to $1 billion of financing for water-related programmes.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

How long will it take to fix the ozone hole completely?

If the Montreal Protocol is fully implemented the ozone layer is projected to recover by 2050. International cooperation so far has had a profoundly positive impact.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says: “Without this treaty, ozone depletion would have increased tenfold by 2050 compared to current levels, and resulted in millions of additional cases of melanoma, other cancers and eye cataracts. It has been estimated, for example, that the Montreal Protocol is saving an estimated two million people each year by 2030 from skin cancer.”

This huge reduction in the release of ozone depleting substances is also helping to reduce global temperature rise by 0.5°C by 2100, according to UNEP, making the Montreal Protocol one of the most successful global agreements of all time.

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