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Science: Ozone Depletion

In the stratosphere, the region of the atmosphere between about 6 and 30 miles (10 and 50 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, ozone (O3) plays a vital role by absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Stratospheric ozone is threatened by some of the human-made gases that have been released into the atmosphere, including those known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Once widely used as propellants in spray cans, refrigerants, electronics cleaning agents, and in foam and


ozone depletion diagram
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insulating products, the CFCs had been hailed as the "wonder chemicals." But the very properties that make them useful - chemical inertness, non-toxicity, insolubility in water - also make them resistant to removal in the lower atmosphere.

CFCs are mixed worldwide by the large-scale motions of the atmosphere and survive until, after 1-2 years, they reach the stratosphere and are broken down by ultraviolet radiation. The chlorine atoms within them are released and directly attack ozone. In the process of destroying ozone, the chlorine atoms are regenerated and begin to attack other ozone molecules... and so on, for thousands of cycles before the chlorine atoms are removed from the stratosphere by other processes.

The profile above shows how the amount of ozone (O3) varies with height in the atmosphere. Note that most of the ozone is in the lower stratosphere. The "ozone layer" resides at an altitude of about 12 to 15 miles (20 to 25 kilometers) above sea level. It acts as a shield by absorbing biologically active ultraviolet light (called UV-B) from the sun. If the ozone layer is depleted, more of this UV-B radiation reaches the surface of the earth. Increased exposure to UV-B has harmful effects on plants and animals, including humans. The chlorine and bromine in human-produced chemicals such as the ones known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons are depleting ozone in the stratosphere. The figure shows a simplified cycle of reactions in which chlorine (Cl) destroys ozone (O3).



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