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Arctic on the verge of record ozone loss

14.03.2011
Arctic-wide measurements verify rapid depletion in recent days

Unusually low temperatures in the Arctic ozone layer have recently initiated massive ozone depletion. The Arctic appears to be heading for a record loss of this trace gas that protects the Earth’s surface against ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

This result has been found by measurements carried out by an international network of over 30 ozone sounding stations spread all over the Arctic and Subarctic and coordinated by the Potsdam Research Unit of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association (AWI) in Germany.

“Our measurements show that at the relevant altitudes about half of the ozone that was present above the Arctic has been destroyed over the past weeks,” says AWI researcher Markus Rex, describing the current situation. “Since the conditions leading to this unusually rapid ozone depletion continue to prevail, we expect further depletion to occur.” The changes observed at present may also have an impact outside the thinly populated Arctic. Air masses exposed to ozone loss above the Arctic tend to drift southwards later. Hence, due to reduced UV protection by the severely thinned ozone layer, episodes of high UV intensity may also occur in middle latitudes. “Special attention should thus be devoted to sufficient UV protection in spring this year,” recommends Rex.

Ozone is lost when breakdown products of anthropogenic chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are turned into aggressive, ozone destroying substances during exposure to extremely cold conditions. For several years now scientists have pointed to a connection between ozone loss and climate change, and particularly to the fact that in the Arctic stratosphere at about 20km altitude, where the ozone layer is, the coldest winters seem to have been getting colder and leading to larger ozone losses. “The current winter is a continuation of this development, which may indeed be connected to global warming,” atmosphere researcher Rex explains the connection that appears paradoxical only at first glance.

“To put it in a simplified manner, increasing greenhouse gas concentrations retain the Earth’s thermal radiation at lower layers of the atmosphere, thus heating up these layers. Less of the heat radiation reaches the stratosphere, intensifying the cooling effect there.” This cooling takes place in the ozone layer and can contribute to larger ozone depletion. “However, the complicated details of the interactions between the ozone layer and climate change haven’t been completely understood yet and are the subject of current research projects,” states Rex. The European Union finances this work in the RECONCILE project, a research programme supported with 3.5 million euros in which 16 research institutions from eight European countries are working towards improved understanding of the Arctic ozone layer.

In the long term the ozone layer will recover thanks to extensive environmental policy measures enacted for its protection. This winter’s likely record-breaking ozone loss does not alter this expectation. “By virtue of the long-term effect of the Montreal Protocol, significant ozone destruction will no longer occur during the second half of this century,” explains Rex. The Montreal Protocol is an international treaty adopted under the UN umbrella in 1987 to protect the ozone layer and for all practical purposes bans the production of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) worldwide today. CFCs released during prior decades however, will not vanish from the atmosphere until many decades from now. Until that time the fate of the Arctic ozone layer essentially depends on the temperature in the stratosphere at an altitude of around 20 km and is thus linked to the development of earth’s climate.

Contacts at Alfred Wegener Institute

Your contact at the Potsdam Research Unit of the Alfred Wegener Institute is Dr. Markus Rex (tel.: +49 (0)174 311 8070, +49 (0)331 288 2127; e-mail: Markus.Rex@awi.de). Your contact in the Communication and Media Department is Ralf Röchert (tel: +49 (0)471 4831-1680; e-mail: Ralf.Roechert@awi.de). You will find printable pictures at http://www.awi.de.

This is a joint statement of the following institutions. The persons mentioned in each case are also at your disposal as contacts.

Belgium
Hugo De Backer, Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium, +32 2 3730594, Hugo.DeBacker@meteo.be
Canada
Tom McElroy, Environment Canada, +1 416 739 4630, Tom.McElroy@ec.gc.ca
David W. Tarasick, Air Quality Res. Div., Environ. Canada, +1 416 739-4623, david.tarasick@ec.gc.ca
Kaley A. Walker, Univ. Toronto, Dep. of Physics, +1 416 978 8218, kwalker@atmosp.physics.utoronto.ca
Czech Republic
Karel Vanicek, Solar and Ozone Observatory, Czech Hydromet. Inst., +420 495260352, vanicek@chmi.cz
Denmark
Niels Larsen, Danish Climate Center, Danish Meteorological Institute, +45-3915-7414, nl@dmi.dk
Finland
Rigel Kivi, Arctic Research Center, Finnish Meteorological Institute, +358 405424543, rigel.kivi@fmi.fi
Esko Kyrö, Arctic Research Center, Finnish Meteorological Institute, +358 405527438, esko.kyro@fmi.fi
France
Sophie Godin-Beekmann, Gerard Ancellet, LATMOS CNRS-UPMC, +33 1442747 67 / 62,
sophie.godin-beekmann@latmos.ipsl.fr, gerard.ancellet@latmos.ipsl.fr
Germany
Hans Claude, Wolfgang Steinbrecht, Deutscher Wetterdienst Hohenpeißenberg, +49 8805 954 170 / 172, hans.claude@dwd.de, wolfgang.steinbrecht@dwd.de
Franz-Josef Lübken, Leibniz-Institut für Atmosphärenphysik, +49 38293 68 100, luebken@iap-kborn.de
Greece
Dimitris Balis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, +30 2310 998192, balis@auth.gr
Costas Varotsos, University of Athens, +30 210 7276838, covar@phys.uoa.gr
Christos Zerefos, Academy of Athens, +30 210 8832048, zerefos@academyofathens.gr
Great Britain
Neil Harris, European Ozone Research Coordinating Unit, University of Cambridge, +44 1223 311797, Neil.Harris@ozone-sec.ch.cam.ac.uk
Norway
Cathrine Lund Myhre, NILU - Norwegian Institute for Air Research, +47-63898042, clm@nilu.no
Russia
Valery Dorokhov, Central Aerological Observatory , +7 499 206 9370, vdor@starlink.ru
Vladimir Yushkov, Central Aerological Observatory +7 495 408-6150, vladimir@caomsk.mipt.ru
Natalya Tsvetkova, Central Aerological Observatory +7 495 408-6150, nat@caomsk.mipt.ru
Spain
Concepción Parrondo, Manuel Gil , INTA, +34 91 5201564, parrondosc@inta.es, gilm@inta.es
Switzerland
René Stübi, Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology, MeteoSwiss, +41 26 662 62 29, rene.stubi@meteoswiss.ch
Geir O. Braathen, World Meteorological Organization, +41 22 730 82 35, GBraathen@wmo.int
USA
Ross J. Salawitch, Univ. of Maryland, MD, +1 626 487 5643, rjs@atmos.umd.edu
Francis J. Schmidlin, NASA/GSFC/Wallops Flight Facility, +1 757 824 1618, francis.j.schmidlin@nasa.gov

The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and middle latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctica. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the seventeen research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.

Margarete Pauls | idw
Further information:
http://www.awi.de/

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