3.4 billion years after the Earth formed, a gas started to form. This wasn’t just any gas and it certainly wasn’t anything like the SBD’s your dog makes (silent but deadly). This gas, formed just inside the second layer of the atmosphere (the Stratosphere), is the reason life on Earth exists.
The Ozone Layer.
So it’s kind of a big deal and it’s not dramatic to say that if there was no Ozone Layer there would be no humans, no plants, and certainly no farting dogs.
The function of the Ozone Layer is to filter UV radiation from the Sun so that we can all continue existing. The work is fairly solitary and kind of easy. It simply needs to exist. But if you have an unnatural fear of hairspray, those are the cultural remnants of a time when the world almost ended. It wasn’t just because of hairspray as you’ll learn, this is the story of how a few people recognized a problem and worked together with a lot more people to come to an agreement and course of action that would protect the future of life on Earth.
how the ozone layer was almost destroyed
In the 1970s and 80s, America was in a state of hyper-consumption. People were looking for the newest, the fastest, the cheapest, and all the ways to get rich. Industry was happy to deliver with what they thought was the perfect chemical to modernize society: Chlorofluorocarbons.
Chlorofluorocarbons is a mouthful so we’ll call it by its nickname: CFCs. They were (and still are) nontoxic, nonflammable chemicals that were seemingly the perfect solution to replace early toxic chemicals. Ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide were some of the big ones casually used in appliances like refrigerators.
Unlike those three messy chemicals above, CFCs had no adverse effects and they were known to be ‘so safe’ that Freon (Du Pont’s tradename for CFCs) was designated as the only coolant that could be used in public air conditioning units per the public health code.
But back to the hairspray. If you weren’t yet born during the height of the ozone saving, it’s easy to think hairspray caused the hole in the ozone layer and that’s why the floofy hair trends of the 70’s and 80’s went away.
Today, the CFCs have been removed from hairspray — you’re safe. Hairspray was just part of the problem and the easiest to sell (aka scare) to the public. After WWII, CFCs were used to make aerosol sprays, foaming agents, packing materials, solvents, and refrigerants. By the 70s they could be found everywhere, such as in:
- bug sprays
- hair spray
- hair conditioners
- fire extinguishers
- cans of shaving cream
- automobile a/c’s
- and much much more.
But what they didn’t know at the time was that while CFCs seemed like a miracle chemical that had no effects on people or the planet, they were wreaking havoc in a higher layer of the atmosphere — the Ozone Layer.
spoiler alert: CFCs affect the function of the ozone layer
The Earth has a protective covering that makes life possible — the atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere consists of multiple layers that help with a variety of life-giving things:
- it regulates the surface temperature
- protects us from space radiation
- provides oxygen
- and is even responsible for liquid water.
“The Ozone Layer is Earth’s safety blanket.” — NASA
If you learned anything in Science class you learned how necessary the Sun also is for life on Earth. But the Sun is like a hot stove. You need it to cook but touch it and you’ll regret it.
The Sun is Earth’s biggest source of essential and harmful radiation. The function of the Ozone Layer is to lessen the impact of the Sun so we can just enjoy the good bits. It does this by blocking incoming UV light which causes sunburns, skin aging, and eventually skin cancer.
Without the Ozone Layer, plants, animals, and people would not be able to survive on Earth.
so how did everyone figure out there was a hole in the ozone layer?
In the early 70s, F. Sherwood Rowland was a Chemistry professor at U.C. Irvine. He attended a conference to hear James Lovelock, a scientist, discuss his self-produced method of measuring CFCs. According to Lovelock’s research, all traces of CFC-11 ever made (a specific type of CFC) were still present in the atmosphere.
Intrigued, Rowland teamed up with Mario Molina, a Mexican chemist, to look into this further. Despite everyone saying CFCs were safe, they felt this was a little sus. Lovelock’s research showed that CFC-11 was still present in the atmosphere; Rowland and Molina weren’t convinced CFCs were as harmless as everyone thought.
They were right and in 1974 they published their findings.
CFCs were not harmful in the lower atmosphere (the Troposphere where we exist). But when they moved higher, outside of the protection from the Ozone Layer, UV radiation caused the CFC molecules to break apart and release chlorine atoms."
This was bad.
Every single chlorine atom can destroy 100,000 molecules of the Ozone Layer.
Even worse, CFCs can remain in the atmosphere for 50-150 years with no way of removing them.
Okay great, shut it down, right? You would think this is all the evidence needed. But instead of government support and a total shutdown of CFCs, in a situation all too familiar to us in 2023, their theory was challenged — especially by the aerosol and halocarbon industries (shocker).
And nothing happened…
Many other scientists believed Rowland and Molina’s measurements were anomalies or happenstance while others believed the effects would take centuries to materialize. The sentiment was basically — chill out guys, the Earth isn’t going anywhere, we have plenty of time to figure this out. Sounds a little similar to the arguments we’re hearing against sustainability today.
the scientists were determined to take care of earth
Rowland and Molina kept at it despite the pushback. And BTW they would go on to win the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of CFCs influence on ozone depletion.
Just prior to May 1977, after years of research by them and other scientists, they had caught the attention of the U.S. government. By May, the U.S. had a plan to phase out CFCs in aerosols which was quickly followed by Canada, Norway, and Sweden.
And still, nothing happened…
Actually, things got worse. Within 5 years, the CFCs manufacturing was higher than 1977 levels!
Rowland and Molina wanted a total ban on CFCs, they weren’t going to let down, but they were going to need some help.
team work makes the dream work
Since 1957, Joseph Farman had been collecting Ozone Layer readings in the Antarctic. But in 1982, five years after the US’s ban on CFCs, his readings came back with a 40% decrease in the ozone layer. He chalked it up to his old equipment and placed an order for a new one, certain that if there was an anomaly, NASA would have detected it.
In 1983, he did the test again. But to be safe he used his new instrument and went to a new location 1,000 miles away. The dramatic decline was still there. He pulled up the readings from previous years to see what was going on and noticed the decline had been going on since 1977.
Where was NASA?
If Joseph was able to capture these readings with his standard equipment, NASA should have been all over this already!
But you know what they say, big data = big problems.
They did see the data but since NASA observed readings 24 hours a day 365 days a year, they overlooked it. Human error. Then they analyzed the data wrong. Farman met with the team and pointed out how they were looking at the data incorrectly — and that’s when they found it.
Right there over the Antarctic there was a huge. gaping. hole.
Kidding — the hole in the ozone layer isn’t a literal hole. It’s really a thinning of the gas past a certain measurement — but that sounds less dramatic.
Remember how everyone thought the results found by Rowland and Molina in 1974 would take centuries to materialize? It had been just 10 years since their findings and there was visible evidence that Earth’s layer of sunscreen was wearing out. Yikes!
But something was still off. Ozone depletion was happening way faster than anyone thought (besides Rowland and Molina) but the data was only showing depletion happening over the North and South poles. Not only was that weird but that wouldn’t be as big of a cause for concern (in their minds).
Enter atmospheric chemist Susan Soloman and atmospheric scientist Rolando Garcia. They teamed up with Rowland to determine that the ice in the polar clouds sped up the ozone depletion in the poles.
They got help from many scientists to continue proving these theories. More testing, more findings, more testing, more evidence, more testing, more acceptance.
big data. big problems. human error.
By now the evidence was clear — CFCs were the cause of Ozone Layer Depletion and they needed to be stopped ASAP. But there was one more piece of the puzzle that needed to be solved. Why were the poles experiencing ozone loss but the rest of the planet wasn’t?
Can you guess why?
Big data. Big problems. Human Error.
They were looking at the data wrong! So NASA organized the Ozone Trends Panel in 1987.
They invited 150 scientists from around the world to study the collected ozone data from the 1950s to date. They proceeded to find annual ozone loss across the whole planet.
Finally, 14 years after this research began, the report for the annual ozone loss was released in 1988. It was time to put CFCs to rest for good.
alex, what is the montreal protocol?
Image Source: OurWorldInData.org
The Montreal Protocol is considered one of the most successful environmental actions taken on a global scale.
It was signed by 197 countries, the first to receive universal cooperation in the history of the U.N. But it didn’t just materialize overnight after one cute little meeting.
First, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of The Ozone Layer of 1985 walked so the Montreal Protocol could run. Issued by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), this general agreement was drafted so that States would continue to:
- research the ozone layer
- exchange information
- and stop doing bad things to hurt it (without clarifying the bad things).
That agreement went on to become the framework for the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer which was signed in 1987 and set to begin in 1989.
But remember that Ozone Trends Panel? Put together by NASA with 150+ international scientists? Well, that came out a year before the protocol was set to begin (in 1988). When the report was released everyone realized the problem was way bigger than they had originally thought, and immediate action needed to be taken.
Instead of giving up or arguing with each other or throwing their hands up in the air because their original plan wasn’t the best plan they continued at it.
They stuck with the plan and continued to make amendments in 1990, 1992, 1997, 1999, and 2016 to significantly accelerate phaseout while adding new phaseouts for Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) as they were discovered.
Had they waited until they knew everything about the Ozone Layer, we would be in big trouble today.
The chart at the top of this section visually breaks down the significance of each amendment.
- The original plan from 1987 (Montreal) would have slowed CFC emissions but not reduced them.
- The plan from 1990 (London) would have shown a slight dip at first and slowed emissions a bit more than the 1987 plan, but it would have done nothing to reduce them.
- It’s not until we get to the 1992 revision (Copenhagen) that not only were the emissions slowed, but they were significantly reduced.
- The Beijing revision of 1997 slowed and reduced emissions even more than Copenhagen.
- The Montreal revision of 2007 slowed and reduced emissions even more than the Beijing revision
The success of the protocol came from the continued study, reporting, and amendments, but most importantly, it came from action, perseverance, and cooperation.
Sometimes in the sustainability industry, we feel like a broken record as we say “take imperfect action, just do something.”
And that’s assuming you’re talking to someone who not only makes a sustainable product but believes in it; not someone trying to greenwash you.
Taking imperfect action goes against everything we know, but it truly is the only way to learn, do, or improve.
If we had given up after the first person told us ( r e ) ˣ was a bad idea; or that ( r e ) ˣ was a silly concept because plastic can’t be infinitely recycled; or ‘there shouldn’t even be ocean plastic to begin with and by making a business around it you’re just encouraging more plastic usage’ we wouldn’t be here.
But our founder Paulina stuck with it and found a group of people who not only believed in her vision but found a way to make it happen.
That’s exactly what the scientists studying and working on the Ozone Layer did. They studied, they improved their tools, they reread their work, they partnered with more scientists, and eventually scientists, international governments, and activists all came together to take a step towards helping and healing the planet. It’s a perfect example of taking imperfect action.
the ozone is on the mend but our work isn’t done
Now for a bit of good news. The Ozone Layer is getting stronger! All those scientists' work paid off, The Montreal Protocol is working.
Emissions from ozone-depleting substances have fallen by 99% and most importantly the hole is getting less hole-y. Before we jump for joy, it will take until 2040 for the ozone to get back to 1980 levels and the ‘hole’ over Antarctica will take until 2066— assuming everything stays on track. But the trend is positive.
We’re still learning about the effects these ODSs (Ozone Depleting Substances) had. We know they hurt the ozone layer, but new studies are evaluating just how significantly ODSs trap greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We already know they’re responsible for 30% of the temperature increase from 1955 to 2005.
If ODSs had never been mass-produced, the Arctic would be at least 55% cooler with 45% more sea ice each September.
Because scientists took action and sounded the alarm, the Montreal Protocol prevented one-degree celsius of global warming (before 2050) by banning Ozone Depleting Substances in the 1990’s.
14 years feels like a long time for everything to happen, especially while the evidence was staring them in the face! But in actuality, from start to Montreal Protocol, this moved incredibly swiftly.
Today, politicians (not scientists) spend longer than 14 years just arguing about a topic. Row V Wade was reversed after 50 years as a constitutional right and we have yet to see any real climate protection. The arguing is preventing anything of substance from actually getting done.
The story of Earth’s ozone layer is truly a phenomenal example of what happens when people work together and fight for a common cause.
We hope this story reminds you that you have more power than you think. It’s easy to forget when you work at a job you hate, spend hours doom-scrolling through other people’s lives, are feeling the effects of climate change, and can never seem to find time to fully rest.
But you made a decision to wake up today. To go to work. To eat. To walk. To drive. To workout. What to wear. What to watch. To do your laundry and not break the machine for its incessant beeping. You control your purchasing. You control where you put your money. You control who represents you and you have the power to advocate for a better future.
Happy New Year everyone! Stay safe, stay motivated, and stay sustainable.
is it safe to use aerosols in 2023?
Yes! If you’re a product of the 90s you can ditch the fear around aerosol hairsprays. While they still contain manmade substances, they’re free from CFCs. Spray in peace but be sure to dispose of the containers properly!
what is the current status of the ozone ‘hole’ 2023
The ‘hole’ in the Ozone Layer is still shrinking in overall size as of 2023.
The Ozone hole is in constant seasonal fluctuation but we’re still on track for recovery close to 2050. The last measurement taken in September 2023 shows it’s the largest hole ever recorded to date most likely due to the Hunga Tonga volcanic eruption in 2022 — more frequent volcanic eruptions are influenced by climate change. Yay for science!