Science has uncovered a new threat to the Earth's ozone layer

Penguins on ice. Image: David Barringhaus/Australian Antarctic Division

Scientists have found a new group of chemicals attacking the ozone layer.

And these are not controlled by a United Nations treaty signed in the 1980s which was designed to ban the production of chemicals causing holes in the ozone layer to form over the Antarctic.

A study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, says the atmospheric abundance of one of these very short-lived substances (VSLS), dichloromethane, is growing rapidly.

Dr Ryan Hossaini, from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, says these chemicals have both natural and industrial sources.

Hossaini says: “But we have identified now that one of these chemicals is increasing rapidly and, if this increase is allowed to continue, it could offset some of the benefits to the ozone layer provided by the Montreal Protocol.”

At present, naturally-emitted VSLS account for around 90% of the total ozone loss caused by VSLS in the lower stratosphere.

However, the contribution from man-made VSLS compounds is increasing.

Dr Stephen Montzka from the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in the US says the increases observed for dichloromethane are striking and unexpected.

It is uncertain what is driving this growth.

However, it could be partly due to the fact that dichloromethane is used in the manufacturing process of some HFCs (hydrofluorocarbon), the ozone-friendly gases which were developed to replace CFCs (chlorofluorocarbon) which were used in refrigerators and in propellants for spray cans.

This would mean that production of ozone-friendly chemicals is actually releasing some ozone-destroying gases.

This graphic shows what happens with the ozone hole:

This is an infographic showing how VSLS deplete ozone. Image: University of Leeds

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