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Back Opinion The Deep Digging a hole

Digging a hole

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We’re messing with things we do NOT understand and cannot control.

WELCOME to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond. Visit our website at www.thedeepradioshow.com.

Most of you realize that I typically limit myself to the interesting but obscure science stories. Unless you’re a science geek like I am, my column is usually the only place you’ll read about whales tracking longliners and eating the fish or Mad Hatter disease or growing a blue hibiscus. But a story that was published online last Sunday in the journal Nature may actually make some news somewhere else other than this column; and goodness knows it should.

So what is this story? A NASA-led study documented an unprecedented depletion of Earth's protective ozone layer above the Arctic last winter and spring caused by an unusually prolonged period of extremely low temperatures in the stratosphere.

Well, hey, ozone holes aren’t new, we’ve known about them since the ‘80s. So why is this news? Read the preceding paragraph again. Notice it says “Arctic” and NOT “Antarctic.” And that, boys and girls, is why it’s BIG news.

Ozone holes form in winter when it gets really cold over the poles.  Since there’s a continent parked at the South Pole, it typically gets a lot colder there than it does over the North Pole where there’s only water.  Ozone has always been destroyed above the North Pole in winter, but the hole has typically been much smaller than the one that forms over the South Pole.

Scientists from 19 institutions in nine countries (United States, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, Russia, Finland, Denmark, Japan and Spain) monitored the ozone loss over the Arctic last winter. They used NASA spacecraft to monitor polar cloud cover, balloons to measure ozone, and they gathered weather data from many other sources. They discovered that at some altitudes, the cold period in the Arctic lasted more than 30 days longer in 2011 than in any previously studied Arctic winter; and this led to the unprecedented ozone loss. This implies that if winter Arctic stratospheric temperatures drop just slightly in the future as a result of climate change, then severe Arctic ozone loss may occur more frequently.

So why do we care if there’s an ozone hole over the Arctic, especially since the report says it’s much smaller than the one that forms over the South Pole?

Well, the Arctic polar vortex, which is a persistent large-scale cyclone where the ozone loss takes place, is smaller and shorter-lived than its Antarctic counterpart, but it’s much more mobile and it moves around, over Canada and Russia and ... the northern United States and Europe.

And you should remember from school and the national news just why ozone holes are a problem to begin with. The ozone blocks a large part of the ultraviolet radiation the Sun puts out in prodigious quantities.  And when the ozone is gone, animals and crops and people fry.

So what are we going to do about it? The answer is: Nothing. Not because those horrible governments won’t act but because it’s already too late. There’s enough chlorine in the stratosphere to fuel ozone holes at both poles for the rest of your life and the lives of your grandchildren.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We’re messing with things we do NOT understand and cannot control. What should you do about it?  Don’t move to Sweden (or London or New York City or Seattle).

Cruise on over to The Deep website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about ozone holes and many other topics. Enjoy!

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