In the last 200 years, we human beings have inflicted staggering amounts of violence and destruction on our home planet. The prognosis seems grim. But every so often, we see a glimmer of hope. The latest? Researchers in the Antarctic report that a tear in the ozone layer above the continent is showing signs of healing. They published their findings in the journal Science.
For those of us who haven’t seen the inside of an Earth science classroom in years, here’s a quick refresher. The ozone layer is a blanket of ozone gas that wraps around our planet, shielding us from nearly all of the Sun’s radiation. Without this blanket, we’d be toast. But pollution has rent holes in this protective layer, leaving the planet and its inhabitants vulnerable to, you know, being burnt to a crisp. So yeah, it’s pretty serious.
Some of the best-known culprits in ozone weakening are chemical compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were, for a time, widely used in popular products and appliances like aerosol sprays and air conditioners. By 1987, CFC-linked damage to the ozone layer was so severe that nations around the world signed a pact, agreeing to ban the chemicals.
Apparently, the ban is working. Studies over the last 10 years have suggested that the ozone layer has begun to patch itself up in certain places, and the latest research in Antarctica bears that out.
Lead author Susan Solomon is an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She and her colleagues have been monitoring the Antarctic ozone hole for years, looking at its area, height, and chemical profile. They now report that, from 2000 to 2015, the size of hole has shrunk by millions of square miles.
“We as a planet have avoided what would have been an environmental catastrophe,” Solomon told Alexandra Witze in Nature. “Yay us!”
Climate scientists estimate that even if the Antarctic hole continues closing at this rate, it won’t completely heal over until at least the year 2100, and the Arctic ozone hole shows no signs yet of mending. We still have a lot of work to do before we can declare victory, but this is still a very good start.
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