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Science: Ozone Basics

Ozone is very rare in our atmosphere, averaging about three molecules of ozone for every 10 million air molecules. In spite of this small amount, ozone plays a vital role in the atmosphere. In the information below, we present "the basics" about this important component of the Earth's atmosphere.


diagram depicting layers of atmospheric ozone
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Where is ozone found in the atmosphere?
Ozone is mainly found in two regions of the Earth's atmosphere. Most ozone (about 90%) resides in a layer that begins between 6 and 10 miles (10 and 17 kilometers) above the Earth's surface and extends up to about 30 miles (50 kilometers). This region of the atmosphere is called the stratosphere. The ozone in this region is commonly known as the ozone layer. The remaining ozone is in the lower region of the atmosphere, which is commonly called the troposphere. The figure (above) shows an example of how ozone is distributed in the atmosphere.

What roles does ozone play in the atmosphere and how are humans affected?
The ozone molecules in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) and the lower atmosphere (troposphere) are chemically identical, because they all consist of three oxygen atoms and have the chemical formula O3. However, they have very different roles in the atmosphere and very different effects on humans and other living beings. Stratospheric ozone (sometimes referred to as "good ozone") plays a beneficial role by absorbing most of the biologically damaging ultraviolet sunlight (called UV-B), allowing only a small amount to reach the Earth's surface. The absorption of ultraviolet radiation by ozone creates a source of heat, which actually forms the stratosphere itself (a region in which the temperature rises as one goes to higher altitudes). Ozone thus plays a key role in the temperature structure of the Earth's atmosphere. Without the filtering action of the ozone layer, more of the Sun's UV-B radiation would penetrate the atmosphere and would reach the Earth's surface. Many experimental studies of plants and animals and clinical studies of humans have shown the harmful effects of excessive exposure to UV-B radiation.

At the Earth's surface, ozone comes into direct contact with life-forms and displays its destructive side (hence, it is often called "bad ozone"). Because ozone reacts strongly with other molecules, high levels of ozone are toxic to living systems. Several studies have documented the harmful effects of ozone on crop production, forest growth, and human health. The substantial negative effects of surface-level tropospheric ozone from this direct toxicity contrast with the benefits of the additional filtering of UV-B radiation that it provides.

What are the environmental issues associated with ozone?
The dual role of ozone leads to two separate environmental issues. There is concern about increases in ozone in the troposphere. Near-surface ozone is a key component of photochemical "smog," a familiar problem in the atmosphere of many cities around the world. Higher amounts of surface-level ozone are increasingly being observed in rural areas as well.

There is also widespread scientific and public interest and concern about losses of ozone in the stratosphere. Ground-based and satellite instruments have measured decreases in the amount of stratospheric ozone in our atmosphere. Over some parts of Antarctica, up to 60% of the total overhead amount of ozone (known as the column ozone) is depleted during Antarctic spring (September-November). This phenomenon is known as the Antarctic ozone hole. In the Arctic polar regions, similar processes occur that have also led to significant chemical depletion of the column ozone during late winter and spring in 7 out of the last 11 years. The ozone loss from January through late March has been typically 20-25%, and shorter-period losses have been higher, depending on the meteorological conditions encountered in the Arctic stratosphere. Smaller, but still significant, stratospheric decreases have been seen at other, more-populated regions of the Earth. Increases in surface UV-B radiation have been observed in association with local decreases in stratospheric ozone, from both ground-based and satellite-borne instruments.

What human activities affect upper-atmospheric ozone (the stratospheric ozone layer)?
The scientific evidence, accumulated over more than two decades of study by the international research community, has shown that human-produced chemicals are responsible for the observed depletions of the ozone layer. The ozone-depleting compounds contain various combinations of the chemical elements chlorine, fluorine, bromine, carbon, and hydrogen and are often described by the general term halocarbons. The compounds that contain only chlorine, fluorine, and carbon are called chlorofluorocarbons, usually abbreviated as CFCs. CFCs, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform are important human-produced ozone-depleting gases that have been used in many applications including refrigeration, air conditioning, foam blowing, cleaning of electronics components, and as solvents. Another important group of human-produced halocarbons is the halons, which contain carbon, bromine, fluorine, and (in some cases) chlorine and have been mainly used as fire extinguishants.

What actions have been taken to protect the ozone layer?
Through an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, governments have decided to eventually discontinue production of CFCs, halons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform (except for a few special uses), and industry has developed more "ozone-friendly" substitutes. All other things being equal, and with adherence to the international agreements, the ozone layer is expected to recover over the next 50 years or so.

* Text and figure are adapted from the Introduction to "Frequently Asked Questions" of the World Meteorological Organization/United Nations Environment Programme report, Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 1998 (WMO Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project-Report No. 44, Geneva, 1999).


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Last updated on 20 March 2008 by

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