ozone layer, northern lightsScience 

Tales of environmental issues past: the Ozone layer

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The 1987 Montreal Protocol may not be cited enough to be a household name like the Rio Declaration (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), or even the Paris Agreements (2016); but it has been called one of the most important and successful international environmental agreements to date. That being said, whilst the name may not mean much to you, its’ achievements certainly do.

diagram ozone layer illustration
Diagram shows how ozone layer blocks some UV rays, see next picture for details.

The Montreal Protocol was the agreement that binded all 197 countries at the time to stop using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone depleting substances to reduce the damage being done to our ozone layer. By the mid 1990s, ozone levels stabilised thanks to the ban of harmful substances, and by the new millennia, the hole that had appeared above Australia had begun to recover. It is expected that it will take another 60 years before ozone levels recover to pre-1980 levels.

But how bad could a depletion of the ozone layer really be? Why would all countries want to work towards a solution for a problem many didn’t seem to grasp, let alone one that wasn’t going to affect them for several decades to come? Simply put: because our survival as a species hinged on it.

Ozone altitude UV graph
Ozone altitude UV graph; source wikimedia.org, author NASA
Graph shows three different types of UV radiation and levels of altitude they can penetrate through. The most danger comes from UV-b type because it causes sunburn and skin cancer.

Should the ozone layer disappear overnight, it would have an immediate effect on several fronts: the first and most noticeable one being the death of most plant life. Indeed, the ozone layer is what protects the planet from the sun’s radiation, essentially acting as a giant buffer that ensures the atmosphere on Earth survives along with everything that depends on it. Of course if plants are dying from the harsh rays from our sun, that also means we are being affected negatively by it as well.

Apart from the lack of oxygen being produced due to the death of practically all plant life, there would be a collapse of the food chain across the board, from the mountain tops of Peru to the fishing grounds in the North Sea, foodwebs will be seriously affected. If you were somehow able to survive all that, solar radiation would kill us before the effects of skin cancer take hold of us.

If it sounds bleak its because it is. It was an issue that was quickly seen by the world as one that needed to be addressed as soon as possible lest we manage to drastically change our own environment for the worst through continued inaction. The common goals set by the Montreal Protocol of fixing the environment whilst also saving our species in the process was a resounding success that unified the entire world.

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