The ozone layer or ozone shield is a region of Earth's stratosphere that absorbs most of the Sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation. It contains high concentrations of ozone (O3) in relation to other parts of the atmosphere, although still small in relation to other gases in the stratosphere. The ozone layer contains less than 10 parts per million of ozone, while the average ozone concentration in Earth's atmosphere as a whole is about 0.3 parts per million. The ozone layer is mainly found in the lower portion of the stratosphere, from approximately 20 to 30 kilometres (12 to 19 mi) above Earth, although its thickness varies seasonally and geographically.
The ozone layer was discovered in 1913 by the French physicists Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson. Measurements of the sun showed that the radiation sent out from its surface and reaching the ground on Earth is usually consistent with the spectrum of a black body with a temperature in the range of 5,500–6,000 K (5,227 to 5,727 °C), except that there was no radiation below a wavelength of about 310 nm at the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. It was deduced that the missing radiation was being absorbed by something in the atmosphere. Eventually the spectrum of the missing radiation was matched to only one known chemical, ozone. Its properties were explored in detail by the British meteorologist G. M. B. Dobson, who developed a simple spectrophotometer (the Dobsonmeter) that could be used to measure stratospheric ozone from the ground. Between 1928 and 1958, Dobson established a worldwide network of ozone monitoring stations, which continue to operate to this day. The "Dobson unit", a convenient measure of the amount of ozone overhead, is named in his honor.
The ozone layer absorbs 97 to 99 percent of the Sun's medium-frequency ultraviolet light (from about 200 nm to 315 nm wavelength), which otherwise would potentially damage exposed life forms near the surface.
The United Nations General Assembly has designated September 16 as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.
The photochemical mechanisms that give rise to the ozone layer were discovered by the British physicist Sydney Chapman in 1930. Ozone in the Earth's stratosphere is created by ultraviolet light striking ordinary oxygen molecules containing two oxygen atoms (O2), splitting them into individual oxygen atoms (atomic oxygen); the atomic oxygen then combines with unbroken O2 to create ozone, O3. The ozone molecule is unstable (although, in the stratosphere, long-lived) and when ultraviolet light hits ozone it splits into a molecule of O2 and an individual atom of oxygen, a continuing process called the ozone-oxygen cycle. Chemically, this can be described as:
About 90 percent of the ozone in the atmosphere is contained in the stratosphere. Ozone concentrations are greatest between about 20 and 40 kilometres (66,000 and 131,000 ft), where they range from about 2 to 8 parts per million. If all of the ozone were compressed to the pressure of the air at sea level, it would be only 3 millimetres (1⁄8 inch) thick.
Although the concentration of the ozone in the ozone layer is very small, it is vitally important to life because it absorbs biologically harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation coming from the sun. Extremely short or vacuum UV (10–100 nm) is screened out by nitrogen. UV radiation capable of penetrating nitrogen is divided into three categories, based on its wavelength; these are referred to as UV-A (400–315 nm), UV-B (315–280 nm), and UV-C (280–100 nm).
UV-C, which is very harmful to all living things, is entirely screened out by a combination of dioxygen (< 200 nm) and ozone (> about 200 nm) by around 35 kilometres (115,000 ft) altitude. UV-B radiation can be harmful to the skin and is the main cause of sunburn; excessive exposure can also cause cataracts, immune system suppression, and genetic damage, resulting in problems such as skin cancer. The ozone layer (which absorbs from about 200 nm to 310 nm with a maximal absorption at about 250 nm) is very effective at screening out UV-B; for radiation with a wavelength of 290 nm, the intensity at the top of the atmosphere is 350 million times stronger than at the Earth's surface. Nevertheless, some UV-B, particularly at its longest wavelengths, reaches the surface, and is important for the skin's production of vitamin D.
Ozone is transparent to most UV-A, so most of this longer-wavelength UV radiation reaches the surface, and it constitutes most of the UV reaching the Earth. This type of UV radiation is significantly less harmful to DNA, although it may still potentially cause physical damage, premature aging of the skin, indirect genetic damage, and skin cancer.
The thickness of the ozone layer—that is, the total amount of ozone in a column overhead—varies by a large factor worldwide, being in general smaller near the equator and larger towards the poles. It also varies with season, being in general thicker during the spring and thinner during the autumn. The reasons for this latitude and seasonal dependence are complicated, which involve in atmospheric circulation patterns as well as solar intensity.
Since stratospheric ozone is produced by solar UV radiation, one might expect to find the highest ozone levels over the tropics and the lowest over polar regions. The same argument would lead one to expect the highest ozone levels in the summer and the lowest in the winter. The observed behavior is very different: most of the ozone is found in the mid-to-high latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres, and the highest levels are found in the spring, not summer, and the lowest in the autumn, not winter in the northern hemisphere. During winter, the ozone layer actually increases in depth. This puzzle is explained by the prevailing stratospheric wind patterns, known as the Brewer-Dobson circulation. While most of the ozone is indeed created over the tropics, the stratospheric circulation then transports it poleward and downward to the lower stratosphere of the high latitudes. However, owing to the ozone hole phenomenon, the lowest amounts of column ozone found anywhere in the world are over the Antarctic in the southern spring period of September and October and to a lesser extent over the Arctic in the northern spring period of March, April, and May.
The ozone layer is higher in altitude in the tropics, and lower in altitude outside the tropics, especially in the polar regions. This altitude variation of ozone results from the slow circulation that lifts the ozone-poor air out of the troposphere into the stratosphere. As this air slowly rises in the tropics, ozone is produced as the sun overhead photolyzes oxygen molecules. As this slow circulation levels off and flows towards the mid-latitudes, it carries the ozone-rich air from the tropical middle stratosphere to the lower stratosphere middle and high latitudes . The high ozone concentrations at high latitudes are due to the accumulation of ozone at lower altitudes.
The Brewer-Dobson circulation moves very slowly. The time needed to lift an air parcel by 1 km in the lower tropical stratosphere is about 2 months (18 m per day). However, horizontal poleward transport in the lower stratosphere is much faster and amounts to approximately 100 km per day in the northern hemisphere whilst it is only half as much in the southern hemisphere (~51 km per day). Even though ozone in the lower tropical stratosphere is produced at a very slow rate, the lifting circulation is so slow that ozone can build up to relatively high levels by the time it reaches 26 kilometres (16 mi).
Ozone amounts over the continental United States (25°N to 49°N) are highest in the northern spring (April and May). These ozone amounts fall over the course of the summer to their lowest amounts in October, and then rise again over the course of the winter. Again, wind transport of ozone is principally responsible for the seasonal changes of these higher latitude ozone patterns.
The total column amount of ozone generally increases as we move from the tropics to higher latitudes in both hemispheres. However, the overall column amounts are greater in the northern hemisphere high latitudes than in the southern hemisphere high latitudes. In addition, while the highest amounts of column ozone over the Arctic occur in the northern spring (March–April), the opposite is true over the Antarctic, where the lowest amounts of column ozone occur in the southern spring (September–October).
The ozone layer can be depleted by free radical catalysts, including nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydroxyl (OH), atomic chlorine (Cl), and atomic bromine (Br). While there are natural sources for all of these species, the concentrations of chlorine and bromine increased markedly in recent decades because of the release of large quantities of man-made organohalogen compounds, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and bromofluorocarbons. These highly stable compounds are capable of surviving the rise to the stratosphere, where Cl and Br radicals are liberated by the action of ultraviolet light. Each radical is then free to initiate and catalyze a chain reaction capable of breaking down over 100,000 ozone molecules. By 2009, nitrous oxide was the largest ozone-depleting substance (ODS) emitted through human activities.
The breakdown of ozone in the stratosphere results in reduced absorption of ultraviolet radiation. Consequently, unabsorbed and dangerous ultraviolet radiation is able to reach the Earth’s surface at a higher intensity. Ozone levels have dropped by a worldwide average of about 4 percent since the late 1970s. For approximately 5 percent of the Earth's surface, around the north and south poles, much larger seasonal declines have been seen, and are described as "ozone holes". The discovery of the annual depletion of ozone above the Antarctic was first announced by Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin, in a paper which appeared in Nature on May 16, 1985.
To support successful regulation attempts, the ozone case was communicated to lay persons "with easy-to-understand bridging metaphors derived from the popular culture" and related to "immediate risks with everyday relevance". The specific metaphors used in the discussion (ozone shield, ozone hole) proved quite useful and, compared to global climate change, the ozone case was much more seen as a "hot issue" and imminent risk. Lay people were cautious about a depletion of the ozone layer and the risks of skin cancer.
In 1978, the United States, Canada and Norway enacted bans on CFC-containing aerosol sprays that damage the ozone layer. The European Community rejected an analogous proposal to do the same. In the U.S., chlorofluorocarbons continued to be used in other applications, such as refrigeration and industrial cleaning, until after the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985. After negotiation of an international treaty (the Montreal Protocol), CFC production was capped at 1986 levels with commitments to long-term reductions. Since that time, the treaty was amended to ban CFC production after 1995 in the developed countries, and later in developing countries. Today, all of the world's 197 countries have signed the treaty. Beginning January 1, 1996, only recycled and stockpiled CFCs were available for use in developed countries like the US. This production phaseout was possible because of efforts to ensure that there would be substitute chemicals and technologies for all ODS uses.
On August 2, 2003, scientists announced that the global depletion of the ozone layer may be slowing down because of the international regulation of ozone-depleting substances. In a study organized by the American Geophysical Union, three satellites and three ground stations confirmed that the upper-atmosphere ozone-depletion rate slowed down significantly during the previous decade. Some breakdown can be expected to continue because of ODSs used by nations which have not banned them, and because of gases which are already in the stratosphere. Some ODSs, including CFCs, have very long atmospheric lifetimes, ranging from 50 to over 100 years. It has been estimated that the ozone layer will recover to 1980 levels near the middle of the 21st century. A gradual trend toward "healing" was reported in 2016.
Compounds containing C–H bonds (such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs) have been designed to replace CFCs in certain applications. These replacement compounds are more reactive and less likely to survive long enough in the atmosphere to reach the stratosphere where they could affect the ozone layer. While being less damaging than CFCs, HCFCs can have a negative impact on the ozone layer, so they are also being phased out. These in turn are being replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and other compounds that do not destroy stratospheric ozone at all.
As ozone in the atmosphere prevents most energetic ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface of the earth, astronomical data in these wavelengths has to be gathered from satellites orbiting above the atmosphere and ozone layer. Most of the light from young hot stars is in the ultraviolet and so study of these wavelengths is important for studying the origins of galaxies. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer, GALEX, is an orbiting ultraviolet space telescope launched on April 28, 2003, which operated until early 2012.
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