A NASA-led study has 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.
The study, published online Sunday, Oct. 2, in the journal Nature, finds the amount of ozone destroyed in the Arctic in 2011 was comparable to that seen in some years in the Antarctic, where an ozone "hole" has formed each spring since the mid-1980s. The stratospheric ozone layer, extending from about 10 to 20 miles (15 to 35 kilometers) above the surface, protects life on Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.
The Antarctic ozone hole forms when extremely cold conditions, common in the winter Antarctic stratosphere, trigger reactions that convert atmospheric chlorine from human-produced chemicals into forms that destroy ozone. The same ozone-loss processes occur each winter in the Arctic. However, the generally warmer stratospheric conditions there limit the area affected and the time frame during which the chemical reactions occur, resulting in far less ozone loss in most years in the Arctic than in the Antarctic.