The ozone hole over Antarctica (depicted in shades of blue and purple) reached its peak late in 2008.

NASA

New threat to ozone layer found

The ozone layer—a high-altitude expanse of oxygen molecules that protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays—has been on the mend for the past decade or so. But a newly discovered threat could delay its recovery. Industrial emissions of a chemical commonly used in solvents, paint removers, and the production of pharmaceuticals have doubled in the past few years, researchers have found, which could slow the healing of the ozone layer over Antarctica anywhere between 5 and 30 years—or even longer if levels continue to rise.

The findings are “frightening” and “a big deal,” says Robyn Schofield, an environmental scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia who was not involved with the work.  

The chemical in question is called dichloromethane (CH2Cl2). Natural sources of this substance are small, says Ryan Hossaini, an atmospheric chemist at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Thus, he notes, the increase in emissions seen in recent years likely stems from human sources. Between 2000 and 2012, low-altitude concentrations of CH2Cl2 vapor rose, on average, about 8% per year, he adds. Globally, concentrations of CH2Cl2 approximately doubled between 2004 and 2014. Current CH2Cl2 emissions are about 1 million metric tons per year, Hossaini and his team estimate.

Like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and several other ozone-destroying chemicals you may have heard of, CH2Cl2 breaks apart when struck by sunlight. The chlorine atoms that are released then dismantle any ozone molecules they interact with. In 1987, an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol led to a ban on the production and use of CFCs and many related compounds in industrial nations, but it ignored CH2Cl2 because researchers thought it didn’t stay intact in the atmosphere long enough to rise into the stratosphere. Recent evidence now suggests, however, that the molecules can reach the lower edge of the stratosphere, which includes the ozone layer, despite its height 8 kilometers above the poles.

To gauge the current and future threat to high-altitude ozone from CH2Cl2, Hossaini and his colleagues used computer simulations. In 2016, their analyses suggest, about 3% of the summer ozone loss in the Antarctic could be traced to CH2Cl2. That seems small, but in 2010 the substance was responsible for only 1.5% of the region’s summer ozone loss, Hossaini says. If CH2Cl2 emissions continue to rise at the rate seen in the last decade, recovery of the ozone hole would be delayed about 30 years, the researchers estimate in Nature Communications.

But if emissions of CH2Cl2 are held to current levels, healing of the ozone hole would be delayed only 5 years or so, the team finds. Simulations that don’t include the effect of CH2Cl2 suggest that high-altitude ozone in the Antarctic will return to pre-1980 levels, the concentration measured before CFCs and other ozone-destroying chemicals were recognized as a problem, in 2065.

The team’s analyses “are quite important,” says Björn-Martin Sinnhuber, an atmospheric scientist at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. “It’s clear that concentrations [of CH2Cl2] have increased quite a lot,” he notes. But one critical question, he contends, is what will happen to emissions over the long term: “They’ve been quite variable in recent years, and it’s difficult to say how they might evolve.”

Although the rapid rise in CH2Cl2 emissions may one day level off, it’s also possible that emissions of this multipurpose chemical may accelerate even further. Hossaini and his team also assessed what would happen to high-altitude ozone if CH2Cl2 emissions rose at twice the rate seen in the past decade. The answer? Not good. Antarctic ozone wouldn’t recover to pre-1980 levels until well after the year 2100, the analyses suggest.

All this means that scientists now reviewing the Montreal Protocol should consider expanding the agreement to also regulate substances like CH2Cl2 that have atmospheric lifetimes of less than 6 months, Schofield says.

Possibly as important, however, the team’s results might also help other researchers identify which sources of CH2Cl2 are contributing most to the recent rise in emissions. That sort of information, Hossaini admits, is sadly lacking as of now.