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As if there weren’t enough going on already, scientists just spotted a huge hole in the ozone layer.
The hole is the biggest one scientists have ever discovered above the Arctic and is certainly the result of man-made chemicals leaching into the upper atmosphere. The hole isn’t expected to get bigger: It will likely disappear as the weather gets warmer around the North Pole. But in the meantime, Greenlanders could get sunburned a little more easily.
The European Space Agency, which detected the hole, has been monitoring the ozone layers since 1995. This one covers an area of nearly 400,000 square miles.
“From my point of view, this is the first time you can speak about a real ozone hole in the Arctic,” Martin Dameris, an atmospheric scientist at the German Aerospace Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, told Nature. Though there’s a persistent hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, scientists have never quite seen a hole like this one over the North Pole.
A hole in the ozone is essentially a puncture in the Earth’s natural atmospheric shield. Through that hole, dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun can pour down onto the planet’s surface. But the ozone layer, or lack thereof, doesn’t have much of an effect on the planet’s temperature and isn’t much of a threat to people: The sun isn’t high enough over the Arctic to burn people.
If the hole drifts farther south, it could affect some more populated areas, but a dab of sunscreen should be enough to keep people safe from the increased UV radiation.
The hole is the result of a polar vortex in the Arctic region, combined with the man-made chemicals. Because of those factors, a record amount of cold air was sitting over the Arctic, allowing high-altitude clouds to form. The man-made chemicals spark chemical reactions on the surface of those clouds that blow a hole in the ozone layer.
“The hole is principally a geophysical curiosity,” Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, told the Guardian.
Ozone-depleting chemicals have been regulated by the UN since 1987, but two years ago, China was found to be polluting a chemical used for refrigerants, which caused the Antarctic ozone hole to grow in size for the first time in years.
And while an ozone hole above the Arctic is weird, a much bigger ozone hole over Antarctica has been a cause for concern for going on four decades. Over the South Pole, temperatures get cold enough every year for those high-altitude clouds to form, which makes the ozone hole there grow and contract seasonally.
While it’s getting way hotter around both of the planet’s polar regions because humans are dumping tons of planet-heating greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it was unusually cold in the Arctic this month, which allowed the ozone layer to form.
Cover: Screenshot via NASA