Satellite images reveal ozone hole that’s three times the size of Brazil — should we be concerned?

The European Space Agency reported that one of the largest holes in the ozone layer on record has been observed above the Antarctic. But is there cause to be concerned?

What’s happening?

The ozone layer is a part of the Earth’s atmosphere that absorbs much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. In 1985, researchers noticed that the ozone layer was growing thinner above the Antarctic. Since then, scientists have monitored the Antarctic ozone layer.

Though we often hear about a “hole” in the ozone layer, that term isn’t quite accurate. It’s actually a patch in the ozone layer where ozone levels are lower than usual, what scientists call an “ozone depletion area.”

The size of the Antarctic depletion zone changes regularly, usually increasing in size from August to October before stabilizing again by December.

In early October, the ESA reported that the Antarctic ozone depletion zone had grown to an area of over 10 million square miles — roughly three times the size of Brazil.

Why should we be concerned about the ozone layer?

The ozone layer protects humans, plants, and animals from harmful UV radiation from the sun. Without it, we would face health risks ranging from cataracts to skin cancer.

So why is the ozone depletion zone so big this year? It probably has something to do with the wind. The strength of the band of wind encircling the Antarctic plays a significant role in determining the size of the depletion zone.

It’s also been hypothesized that the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in January 2022 may have caused the depletion zone to grow this year.

Senior ESA scientist Antje Inness explained: “The eruption … injected a lot of water vapor into the stratosphere which only reached the south polar regions after the end of the 2022 ozone hole. The water vapor could have led to the heightened formation of polar stratospheric clouds, where chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) can react and accelerate ozone depletion.”

What’s being done to protect the ozone?

Though the news may sound dire, the ozone layer is actually on the mend.

Ozone depletion peaked in the 1980s when products containing chlorofluorocarbons were used regularly. Chlorofluorocarbons reduce ozone levels in our atmosphere. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was implemented to end the production of chlorofluorocarbons.

Since then, the ozone layer has bounced back. ESA mission manager Claus Zehner said in a statement, “Scientists currently predict that the global ozone layer will reach its normal state again by around 2050.”

To ensure the ozone layer continues its recovery, you should avoid products containing ozone-depleting chemicals like certain fire extinguishers, aerosols, and refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners from before 1995.

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