16.7 Ozone Depletion in the Stratosphere

You have earlier studied in the Chemistry textbook of Class XI about ‘bad’ ozone, formed in the lower atmosphere (troposphere) that harms plants and animals. There is ‘good’ ozone also; this ozone is found in the upper part of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, and it acts as a shield absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

UV rays are highly injurious to living organisms since DNA and proteins of living organisms preferentially absorb UV rays, and its high energy breaks the chemical bonds within these molecules. The thickness of the ozone in a column of air from the ground to the top of the atmosphere is measured in terms of Dobson units (DU). Ozone gas is continuously formed by the action of UV rays on molecular oxygen, and also degraded into molecular oxygen in the stratosphere.

There should be a balance between production and degradation of ozone in the stratosphere. Of late, the balance has been disrupted due to enhancement of ozone degradation by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

CFCs find wide use as refrigerants. CFCs discharged in the lower part of atmosphere move upward and reach stratosphere. In stratosphere, UV rays act on them releasing Cl atoms. Cl degrades ozone releasing molecular oxygen, with these atoms acting merely as catalysts; Cl atoms are not consumed in the reaction.

Hence, whatever CFCs are added to the stratosphere, they have permanent and continuing affects on Ozone levels. Although ozone depletion is occurring widely in the stratosphere, the depletion is particularly marked over the Antarctic region.

This has resulted in formation of a large area of thinned ozone layer, commonly called as the ozone hole (Figure 16.8). UV radiation of wavelengths shorter than UV-B, are almost completely absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, given that the ozone layer is intact.

But, UV-B damages DNA and mutation may occur. It causes aging of skin, damage to skin cells and various types of skin cancers. In human eye, cornea absorbs UV-B radiation, and a high dose of UV-B causes inflammation of cornea, called snow-blindness cataract, etc.

Such exposure may permanently damage the cornea. Recognising the deleterious affects of ozone depletion, an international treaty, known as the Montreal Protocol, was signed at Montreal (Canada) in 1987 (effective in 1989) to control the emission of ozone depleting substances.

Subsequently many more efforts have been made and protocols have laid down definite roadmaps, separately for developed and developing countries, for reducing the emission of CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals.

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