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    Antarctic ozone hole

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    An international team of scientists has reported that emissions of ozone-destroying chemicals have increased in the past six years despite the chemicals being banned by the Montreal Protocol.

    According to the new paper published in the journal Nature, the researchers have concluded that a mysterious source in East Asia might be responsible for this surge. Sputnik discussed the increase of dangerous emissions of ozone-destroying chemicals with professor Martyn Chipperfield, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Leeds.

    Sputnik: So let’s look at the team's findings. What effect could this have on the ozone layer?

    Martyn Chipperfield: What the team has discovered is that one of the main ozone-depleting gases, which has been banned by the Montreal Protocol, which is the international agreement to safeguard the ozone layer, one of these gases is not decreasing at the rate we expect, so that means that under the Montreal Protocol the emissions of that gas should be zero, it's not allowed to be produced anymore, but they found that some emissions have restarted.

    So the significance really is that the Montreal Protocol is not being followed and there are these new emissions. So far the amount of emissions they’ve detected won’t have a big effect in themselves; what would happen if those emissions grew and the overall decrease in these compounds was reversed, we could see a large delay in the recovery of the ozone layer.

    Sputnik: The fact that these substances’ decline in the atmosphere slowed by half, now what does that tell us about the rate at which the ozone-destroying chemicals are being produced?

    Martyn Chipperfield: Basically the concentration in the atmosphere is decaying because the atmosphere is removing the polluting gases slowly, the emissions that had stopped to a large extent and the atmosphere was recovering slowly, it was sort of cleansing itself of these pollutants, and that takes about 50 years, it’s a very long time regarding this problem, so the fact that the decrease has halved shows the emissions have restarted.

    So the emissions have gone from zero to something and they should’ve stayed near enough zero, so it’s sort of a big leap in terms of something happening that shouldn't be happening, but the quantitative impact so far on the ozone layer, so far it would be relatively modest.

    Sputnik: Any guesses as to what could be the source of these chemicals?

    Martyn Chipperfield: The paper has a network of observations used in the analysis and from that global network they can see quite strong correlations of where these emissions are coming from because monitoring stations that sample air that's come from East Asia see elevated concentrations of these ozone-depleting compounds, so the observations seem to point very firmly towards emissions coming from East Asia, and that actually shows very good detective work by atmospheric scientists, the fact that we can detect these emissions in the atmosphere, detect that the protocol is not being followed is a very big feather in the cap for the atmospheric scientists doing the monitoring.

    What it means industrially, in terms of who is releasing this compound and why, is not clear at the moment, it’s possible that the CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) in question could be a byproduct of the production of an allowed chemical called HCFC; so if there were not too rigorous processes about emitting byproducts, it’s possible that the production of the HCFCs might be releasing some CFCs or otherwise it might be someone actually deciding to restart the production of CFCs for some reason; that’s going to take further investigation on the ground by inspectors in the industries concerned.

    Sputnik: At the current rate how quickly will the ozone hole close completely because I’m thinking back when it all became known really, the whole issue of the ozone hole, some 25 years ago, I was just starting my work in the media and I remember it was the buzz word and I remember struggling with CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, we were always talking about that and then suddenly they were saying that it's closing – could this happen?

    Martyn Chipperfield: The ozone hole was discovered in 1985 over the Antarctic and there was rapid research done, and scientists quite quickly established the cause, like you say chlorofluorocarbons, and other gases, the CFCs, and the international agreement, the Montreal Protocol was first signed 1987 then gradually strengthened to it’s current state and basically has banned the production of all of the dangerous ozone-depleting compounds.

    The amount of chlorine in the atmosphere from the CFCs and other gases peaked in the mid 1990s because of the very long lifetime of these gases it will take about until 2050 or 2060 for the atmospheric levels of the chlorine to get back to the 1980 levels when the ozone hole was first formed, so we expect the ozone hole over Antarctica to be around till about 2050-2060, that was our best estimate, clearly if this latest research and what they found carries on and there are these renewed emissions of CFCs that could delay it by a few years or it could get even a longer delay depending on how much of the chemicals have been formed.

    Sputnik: Of course the Montreal Protocol of 1987 was at the time a huge environmental triumph because it was a sign of major unparalleled corporation, all those signatories, but that happened because it was being proven that the depletion of the ozone layer was actually affecting humans, their health, there was a spike in cancer incidents – do we know how the ongoing changes in the ozone levels in the atmosphere are affecting humans now?

    Martyn Chipperfield: The Montreal Protocol is likely hailed as maybe the most successful international environmental agreement there has been because it has banned these very dangerous compounds that could've caused catastrophic ozone loss had they continued.

    There was an element of precaution in there, the effect hadn't become too severe, luckily the ozone hole is over the Antarctica, a relatively unpopulated part of the world, and so the governments involved banned the CFCs to avoid even greater loss; but as a rule of thumb a 1 percent depletion of the ozone layer corresponds to about a 1 percent increase in skin cancer in humans, and that’s the main worry about a decreasing ozone, the fact that it increases ultraviolet radiation at the surface, which in humans, for example, can increase incidents of skin cancer.

    The views expressed in this article are those of Martyn Chipperfield and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Sputnik.

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    Tags:
    chemicals, chlorofluorocarbon, depletion, emissions, pollution, ecology, environment, increase, rates, skin cancer, ozone layer, Montreal Protocol, Martyn Chipperfield
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