The so-called ozone hole over Antarctica and the southern regions of Chilean and Argentine Patagonia set new records this year for both area and depth, according to NASA. Meanwhile, scientists say that based on improvements in modeling, they now forecast the area of extreme ozone thinning won’t begin to heal until 2024—well over a decade later than previously thought.
NASA data released last month showed that the ozone hole during Sept. 21-30 reached a size of 10.6 million square miles—far larger than the entire surface area of the North American continent. The dramatic thinning of the protective ozone layer typically occurs in August and September, though the hole has appeared as late as November and December. Scientists say the hole’s increased size this year was due not to concentrations of ozone-depleting chemicals, which thanks to international efforts have been on the decline since the mid-1990s, but to fluctuating weather patterns.
The temperature of the Antarctic stratosphere is the principal factor in the changes in the size of the ozone hole from year to year, with colder temperatures resulting in larger and deeper holes. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that Antarctica was about nine degrees Fahrenheit colder than normal.
Claudio Casiccia, who monitors the ozone hole at Chile’s Magallanes University, says that nevertheless, the hole’s impact on Chile has not been greater than usual. Says Casiccia: “This year the ozone hole has been centered mostly over Antarctica and only has gone over the Magallanes Region [Chile’s southernmost region] during a few days in November and a few others at the start of September.”
Little action to address impacts
He adds that despite the continuing threat to the region for at least another 18 years, Chile has undertaken few concrete steps to research and address the threats the hole poses to human and natural systems in Magallanes.
Chile and Argentina have made similar efforts to protect people in Patagonia from the increased ultraviolet radiation that occurs when the ozone hole appears. Both nations issue color-coded ozone alerts for locals. Distributed through the local media, the alerts assign colors according to the intensity of the ultraviolet radiation.
In 2003, Argentina and Chile agreed to conduct joint research on the effects of ozone depletion in the Patagonian and Antarctic regions. They also pledged close collaboration on climate-change research and the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. But scientists on both sides of the Andes complain the two governments have failed to follow through. In early 2004, a binational meeting was held, followed by the formation of a binational commission charged with developing ozone-hole impact studies. The research, however, has not been carried out on account of a lack of domestic and international funding.
“Here the health ministry is maintaining the initiatives already in place to protect the population from the effects of the ozone hole,” says Casiccia. “Chile has signed all the international agreements. But what concerns me is that ozone research of all kinds still has practically no government support. It’s all done at the initiative of our universities.”
Rubén Piacentini, an expert on ozone-hole impacts at Argentina’s Rosario National University, agrees.
“In general, there is a belief that the ozone issue has been solved, so funds for studying the issue and its continuing impacts remain limited. But there is a lot more to investigate—the effect of increased ultraviolet radiation on animals; the relation between the ozone and solar radiation and how it’s affected by atmospheric gases; and especially how the ozone hole interacts with climate change. A recent study in the U.S. shows that part of the warming of some regions in Antarctica is due to the ozone hole.”
Creation of fund urged
Piacentini says a global fund urgently needs to be set up to help southern Patagonia and other affected populations deal with the continuing effects of the ozone hole over the coming decades. He adds: “Especially, we must provide help to people who work outside all the time—farmers, boat workers, construction workers, police, others.”
Such assistance would appear necessary for a longer period than previously thought. Until recently, scientists were forecasting that the annual ozone-hole phenomenon would begin to ease as early as 2010 and disappear altogether by 2050. Their optimism was based in part on the success of the UN-brokered 1987 Montreal Protocol in limiting global emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals.
New analytical tools developed by NASA, however, suggest that previous ozone models have underestimated the amount of chlorine and bromine over Antarctica. Moreover, research suggests that certain ozone-depleting chemicals linger in the atmosphere longer than previously believed. As a result, scientists say that the ozone-hole problem won’t begin to ease until 2024 and won’t disappear until 2076.
- James Langman