Since most ozone-depleting substances
are released in the northern hemisphere, a common question is why
the ozone hole occurs over the Antarctic. The first part of the
answer is that even though most of these chemicals are heavier
than air, regardless of where they're released, they mix throughout
the troposphere over about a year, and then mix into the stratosphere
in 2-5 years. The second part of the answer is that although the
overall process is similar between
global ozone depletion and the ozone hole, there are two different
types of ozone depletion chemistry. Both types are important, but
the ozone hole seems to grab most of the attention.
The first kind is called homogeneous depletion; resulting from
reactions as gases mix together, it is responsible for the reduction
in global ozone levels. The 5-10% drop in ozone over the US is an
example of homogeneous chemistry.
The second kind of ozone depletion chemistry, called heterogeneous,
causes the radical destruction of ozone over the Antarctic each
spring that we call the ozone hole. It results from reactions on
the surfaces of ice particles. The existence of these particles,
and the seasonal and geographic location of the hole, all result
from a combination of meteorological and other effects that are
specific to Antarctica at that time of year:
- The Antarctic Polar Vortex
- Polar Stratospheric Clouds
- Concentrations of Active Chlorine
Each winter, the air around the South Pole cools and begins circulating
to the west. This vortex effectively isolates the air over Antarctica,
with three effects:
- Outside air, which is relatively ozone-rich, cannot mix in and
sustain ozone levels.
- Chemicals that tend to slow down the depletion reactions cannot
mix with Antarctic air.
- Heat from outside air is shut out, prolonging the period of
very low stratospheric temperatures.
Because the air gets so cold over the Antarctic each winter, the
vortex remains intact for several months, finally breaking up in
December. The vortex is the reason for the timing and location of
the hole; because such vortices do not form over more temperate
regions, homogeneous gas-phase chemistry is the dominant global
concern, producing long-term ozone depletion trends.
The Antarctic is a very cold place; temperatures in the lower stratosphere
drop below -78° C (-108°F). Ordinarily, the stratosphere
is so dry that it will not support clouds, but these cold temperatures
do produce ice clouds. Some of the clouds are water ice, but more
prevalent are clouds of nitric acid and water.
Like the wind vortex, the formation of PSCs has specific results:
- In the absence of polar stratospheric clouds, most stratospheric
chlorine is locked up in relatively inert compounds. However,
the surfaces of the ice particles in the clouds allow these compounds
to react, coverting the chlorine into ozone-destroying forms.
The reactions are different from those occuring when gases mix
over midlatitudes, and can only take place on cloud particles.
- The nitric acid in the clouds comes from nitrogen oxides (NOx)
(the process of removing NOx from the atmosphere is called denoxification).
Nitric acid normally slows the ozone depletion reactions, so its
removal allows ozone destruction to continue unabated.
- This sequestering of NOx can become permanent if the cloud grows
so large that it eventually sinks into the troposphere (called
The forms of chlorine released from the clouds' surfaces cannot
destroy ozone without the addition of UV light, which isn't available
during the southern winter. Thus, their concentrations rise until
the sun appears during the spring. When the sun does rise, the chlorine
is rapidly converted to chlorine monoxide, and this is followed
by a very rapid set of reactions, destroying up to 70% of the ozone
in the lower stratosphere over a period of weeks.
The net effect of these factors is the ozone hole: an easily-measured,
well-defined, seasonal phenemenon. The depth,
area, and timing of the hole vary from year to year, but as
the polar vortex breaks up and the stratosphere warms, the heterogeneous
chemistry shuts down, and ozone levels over the Antarctic return
to near normal. The ozone hole generally lasts from August to November,
although the exact time period varies from year to year.
The ozone hole is the most obvious effect of the release of ozone-depleting
substances into the atmosphere, and it is also the most extreme
example of ozone depletion. However, the long-term downward trends
in ozone levels over most of the globe also pose a serious threat.
Although not as spectacular, homogeneous chemistry is a significant
Much more detail about the ozone hole is available. The Ozone
Hole Tour provides graphs and text to explain why the ozone
hole occurs, and Robert
Parson's Frequently Asked Questions site provides scientific citations.
Other Links to Information About
the Antarctic Ozone Hole