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Ozone

Without ozone, life on Earth would not have evolved in the way it has. The first stage of single cell organism development requires an oxygen-free environment. This type of environment existed on earth over 3000 million years ago. As the primitive forms of plant life multiplied and evolved, they began to release minute amounts of oxygen through the photosynthesis reaction (which converts carbon dioxide into oxygen). The build up of oxygen in the atmosphere led to the formation of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere or stratosphere. This layer filters out incoming radiation in the "cell-damaging" ultraviolet (UV) part of the spectrum. Thus with the development of the ozone layer came the formation of more advanced life forms.

Ozone is a form of oxygen. The oxygen we breathe is in the form of oxygen molecules (O2) - two atoms of oxygen bound together. Normal oxygen which we breathe is colourless and odourless. Ozone, on the other hand, consists of three atoms of oxygen bound together (O3). Most of the atmosphere's ozone occurs in the region called the stratosphere. Ozone is colourless and has a very harsh odour. Ozone is much less common than normal oxygen. Out of 10 million air molecules, about 2 million are normal oxygen, but only 3 are ozone.

Most ozone is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere or stratosphere. While ozone can be found through the entire atmosphere, the greatest concentration occurs at altitudes between 19 and 30 km above the Earth's surface. This band of ozone-rich air is known as the "ozone layer". Ozone also occurs in very small amounts in the lowest few kilometres of the atmosphere, a region known as the troposphere. It is produced at ground level through a reaction between sunlight and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), some of which are produced by human activities such as driving cars. Ground-level ozone is a component of urban smog and can be harmful to human health.

Even though both types of ozone contain the same molecules, their presence in different parts of the atmosphere has very different consequences. Stratospheric ozone blocks harmful solar radiation - all life on Earth has adapted to this filtered solar radiation. Ground-level ozone, in contrast, is simply a pollutant. It will absorb some incoming solar radiation, but it cannot make up for ozone losses in the stratosphere.