How Does the Ozone Layer Work

How does the ozone layer work? Many people understand that a healthy ozone layer is important, but don't understand why. The layer of ozone in our upper atmosphere blocks ultraviolet radiation that would otherwise be harmful to plants, animals and humans.

How Does The Ozone Layer Work To Protect Us?

  • That ozone thing. Ozone is a molecular compound created from three oxygen atoms. The ozone layer is a naturally occurring concentration of ozone in the Earth's stratosphere, located between 30,000 and 150,000 feet above the Earth. The ozone layer contains approximately 90% of the naturally occurring ozone in our atmosphere.
  • Selfless sacrifice. As ozone molecules float through the atmosphere, they are exposed to strong ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. When a UV ray impacts an ozone molecule, the ozone absorbs the ray and converts its energy into heat. The reaction causes the ozone molecule to breakdown into a single oxygen atom and a separate pair of oxygen molecules.
  • Back together again. In a short space of time, the oxygen pair combines with another single oxygen molecule to form a new three-oxygen-atom ozone molecule.
  • Why that's a good thing. The reaction between ozone and UV radiation blocks most of the radiation from reaching the surface of the Earth. Without ozone protection, UV levels would increase dramatically at the Earth's surface. Increased levels of UV radiation have been linked to skin cancer, cataracts and weakened immune systems in humans. In nature, increased UV radiation is responsible for crop failures and disruption of the ocean's food chain.
  • Troublemakers. In the atmosphere, the interaction between ozone and manmade chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) leads to the breakdown of ozone. CFCs were widely used in refrigeration systems, insulating foam and industrial cleaning solvents. In the mid 1980s, scientist observed a large "hole" in the ozone layer, centered over Antarctica. The ozone hole was directly linked to the use of CFCs.
  • The power of cooperation. In 1987, many countries signed an agreement called the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol called for the phasing out of use and production of CFCs. Today, scientists report that levels of CFCs and related chemicals have dropped significantly from 1985 levels.
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