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Causes of Ozone Depletion

Ozone depletion occurs when the natural balance between the production and destruction of stratospheric ozone is tipped in favour of destruction. Although natural phenomena can cause temporary ozone loss, chlorine and bromine released from man-made compounds such as CFCs are now accepted as the main cause of this depletion.

It was first suggested by Drs. M. Molina and S. Rowland in 1974 that a man-made group of compounds known as the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were likely to be the main source of ozone depletion. However, this idea was not taken seriously until the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in 1985 by the British Antarctic Survey.

Chlorofluorocarbons are not "washed" back to Earth by rain or destroyed in reactions with other chemicals. They simply do not break down in the lower atmosphere and they can remain in the atmosphere from 20 to 120 years or more. As a consequence of their relative stability, CFCs are instead transported into the stratosphere where they are eventually broken down by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the Sun, releasing free chlorine. The chlorine becomes actively involved in the process of destruction of ozone. The net result is that two molecules of ozone are replaced by three of molecular oxygen, leaving the chlorine free to repeat the process:

Cl + O3 ® ClO + O2

ClO + O ® Cl + O2

Ozone is converted to oxygen, leaving the chlorine atom free to repeat the process up to 100,000 times, resulting in a reduced level of ozone. Bromine compounds, or halons, can also destroy stratospheric ozone. Compounds containing chlorine and bromine from man-made compounds are known as industrial halocarbons.

Emissions of CFCs have accounted for roughly 80% of total stratospheric ozone depletion. Thankfully, the developed world has phased out the use of CFCs in response to international agreements to protect the ozone layer. However, because CFCs remain in the atmosphere so long, the ozone layer will not fully repair itself until at least the middle of the 21st century. Naturally occurring chlorine has the same effect on the ozone layer, but has a shorter life span in the atmosphere.