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Ozone Layer

The ozone layer is not really a layer at all, but has become known as such because most ozone particles are scattered between 19 and 30 kilometres (12 to 30 miles) up in the Earth's atmosphere, in a region called the stratosphere. The concentration of ozone in the ozone layer is usually under 10 parts ozone per million. Without the ozone layer, a lot of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun would not be stopped reaching the Earth's surface, causing untold damage to most living species. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could destroy ozone in the stratosphere.

Ozone is created in the stratosphere when UV radiation from the Sun strikes molecules of oxygen (O2) and causes the two oxygen atoms to split apart. If a freed atom bumps into another O2, it joins up, forming ozone (O3). This process is known as photolysis. Ozone is also naturally broken down in the stratosphere by sunlight and by a chemical reaction with various compounds containing nitrogen, hydrogen and chlorine. These chemicals all occur naturally in the atmosphere in very small amounts.

In an unpolluted atmosphere there is a balance between the amount of ozone being produced and the amount of ozone being destroyed. As a result, the total concentration of ozone in the stratosphere remains relatively constant. At different temperatures and pressures (i.e. varying altitudes within the stratosphere), there are different formation and destruction rates. Thus, the amount of ozone within the stratosphere varies according to altitude. Ozone concentrations are highest between 19 and 23 km.

Most of the ozone in the stratosphere is formed over the equator where the level of sunshine striking the Earth is greatest. It is transported by winds towards higher latitudes. Consequently, the amount of stratospheric ozone above a location on the Earth varies naturally with latitude, season, and from day-to-day. Under normal circumstances highest ozone values are found over the Canadian Arctic and Siberia, whilst the lowest values are found around the equator. The ozone layer over Canada is normally thicker in winter and early spring, varying naturally by about 25% between January and July. Weather conditions can also cause considerable daily variations.