Jul 27, 2012

New report suggests summer storms could create new ozone holes

Posted by The Extinction
July 27, 2012CLIMATESummer storms may create new holes in our protective ozone layer as Earth heats up—bringing increased solar ultraviolet radiation to densely populated areas, a new study says. What’s more, if more sunlight reaches Earth, skin cancer could become the new marquee risk of global warming. As the planet warms, some studies have suggested summer storms may become more frequent and intense. This would send more water vapor—a potent greenhouse gas—into the stratosphere, the middle layer of Earth’s atmosphere, which sits between 9 and 22 miles (14 and 35 kilometers) above Earth’s surface. In a recent series of research flights over the United States, Harvard University atmospheric chemist James Anderson and colleagues found that summer storms often loft water vapor into the stratosphere. “It was an unequivocal observation,’ he said. “We had a number of flights, and this was an abiding feature” of the storms. Under the right conditions, this water vapor could trigger chemical reactions that deplete the ozone layer, which prevents harmful ultraviolet rays from reaching Earth’s surface, the study says. Even small reductions in the ozone layer can make people more susceptible to skin cancer and eye damage, experts say. The finding concerned Anderson, whose research in the 1980s and ‘90s played a pivotal role in establishing the Montreal Protocol. The international treaty phased out the production of ozone-depleting chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were found in a variety of products, including hairsprays and refrigerators. CFCs produce a form of chlorine that degrades ozone particles in the stratosphere, most significantly over the Arctic and Antarctic. Subsequent studies in the Arctic and in the laboratory revealed that both temperature and water vapor concentrations are crucial in a chemical reaction that makes chlorine attack ozone. Now, the new observations over the United States suggest summer storms create the same combination of temperature and water vapor conditions at mid-latitudes. “We essentially have the chemistry that’s present in the Arctic that is clearly very potent for destroying ozone,” Anderson said. The findings, published today in the journal Science, calculate ozone loss at a rate between 4 and 6 percent per day in water vapor-rich areas of the stratosphere. The effect could persist for several weeks after a storm, he added. What worries Anderson most is where and when this phenomenon appears to occur. “It is not ozone loss in Antarctica and the Arctic under winter conditions. It is an attack on the ozone layer in the summer over populated regions of the Northern Hemisphere,” he said. –National Geographic