The Day of the Ozone – In memory of the gas that keeps us alive

With the 16th of September around the corner and most of us unaware of the significance of the day, this sketch will provide a brief reminder as to what exactly Ozone day is and in doing so remind us of our individual reasonability towards realizing a more habitable world as oppose to what we occupy.

In 1994, 21 years prior to this date, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the 16 September the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, to commemorate the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. In 1987, 24 countries met in Montreal Canada and announced that the time had come to stop destroying the ozone layer by phasing out numerous substances, universally known today by the basket term chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that predominantly contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer. Since then the treaty has under gone eight revision where by stricter standards have been adhered to which has resulted in the UN Secretary General asserting that  “Without the Protocol and associated agreements, atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting substances could have increased ten-fold by 2050”. Remarkably, the ozone treaty which this day celebrates has evolved into the United Nation’s first truly global treaty as it has been ratified by 197 countries, which includes 196 states and the European Union.

Ozone 101

One of the main infringements in the journey to realize our role in the climate debacle is our inability to conceive to an adequate level what the ozone layer is and how it impacts our lives; and the manner in which we impact the ozone which in turn can generate either a vicious cycle or a virtuous one at that. Basically the Ozone (O3) is a gas found in our atmosphere. Each ozone molecule is made up of three oxygen atoms- hence its molecular signage (O3). It is a pale blue gas with a distinctively pungent smell – and it is very scarce – for just 0.000004% of Earth’s total atmosphere is made up of ozone and it is typically said to exist between about 20 and 30km above the earth’s surface in the stratosphere. Due to the cognitive dissonance that numbers foster it is better to visualize the ozone layer as an orange squashed in a glass of water where the water is the rest of the atmosphere. When we talk about an “ozone hole” we actually mean a region where the squash is thinner and more diluted than we’d like it to be – not that there is no ozone gas present. For if at any point all the ozone in the atmosphere was collected into one continuous layer it would only be about 3-5mm (1/8 of an inch) thick.

The manner in which the ozone layer serves all living organisms is through its ability to filter the harmful radiation from the sun. In particular, it protects life from UVB light which is a type of ultraviolet radiation. Small amounts of exposure to UVB is what cause the common sunburn, but high levels of exposure has been recognized as causing cancer which is similar in effect to human – and most other life on earth.

The Human Touch

Exactly 30 years ago, UK scientists apart of British Antarctic Survey announced that they had discovered a hole in the ozone layer in the atmosphere above Antarctica, which was backed by NASA with satellite imagery. The average size of this hole in 2014 was 24.1 million square kilometres- roughly the size of North America – and its size changes with the seasons with historical records showing that they are highest during the months of October and September – spring time. The exact nature of the impact due to the reduction of ozone upon the earth and its eco-systems is hard to definitively state the reason for this according Jon Shanklin, one of the three individuals who lead the British Antarctic Survey Scientists (1985) is that “international treaty (Montreal Protocol) was established fairly quickly to deal with the ozone hole, but really the main point about its (hole) discovery was that it shows how incredibly rapidly we can produce major changes to our atmosphere and how long it takes for nature to recover from them”. Under these systematic consideration scientists can only allude to the direction of the impact ozone depletion may have. This direction in turn has been inundated with cases of biological consequences such as the increase in skin cancer, cataracts, damage to plants and reduction of plankton populations in the ocean’s photic zone. Notably, plankton have a colossal impact upon the hotly mooted climate change debate- the discourse of which has taken centre stage due US President Obama’s visit to Alaska in September 2015 and the Paris Climate Conference to be held in December 2015 – as they are believed to sequester more carbon annual than all the world’s rainforests and terrestrial systems combined.

The data sets on the ozone and climate change is expected to run upwards of 350 Petabytes by the year 2030, as such the quantity of data and analysis’ that can be conducted on the ozone, which has proven to be closely interconnected with climate change is limitless. Yet, as is the case with all Big Data- all the data in the world will serve no ends if they are not understood as a part of the context they are drawn from. It is here that most scientific debate loses the cooperation of the public in pushing the environmental agenda with the political leader ship, for in all honesty the very concept of a petabyte is alien to most individuals not associated with the ICT field in some manner. However, in simplifying and summing up the technical discussion of the ozone, its depletion since the dawn of the industrial era can be described by two distinct but related phenomena. Firstly, a steady decline of about 4% per decade in the total volume of ozone gas in earth’s stratosphere and secondly, a much larger springtime decrease in stratospheric ozone over earth’s Polar Regions. It is this latter phenomenon which is referred to as the Antarctic ozone hole.

Lesson for Life from the Ozone Experience

Ranging from the calamity which awaits humanity on the far corner of its consumerist and unsustainable credit system to the recognition that the continuing recovery of the ozone which in 2014 was smaller than the large holes of the 1998–2006 period, lies entirely in the political determination to phase out the man-made CFC gases; the lessons that can be learnt from the ozone experience are numerous. The value of the ozone is immeasurable but in putting a human faces to its value the UNEP estimates that by 2030 the treaty will have prevented two million cases of skin cancer annually, averted damage to human eyes and immune systems, and protected wildlife and agriculture.

The 16th of September, as is the case with many other UN designated days have great historical importance as it commemorates the valour and determination of those distinguished politicians and scientists who took on the multinational such as DuPont – in the case of ozone debate – to realize a safer world for all. However, it is important that this day is not merely celebrated for the sake of reasons old but that these memories and experiences are used to further our own resolve to ensure the hard work and effort that was taken to ban CFCs are not undone in time and to find firmer resolve so as to persevere with the impending Paris climate summit in December 2015. The outcome of which will not only determine the future of the young -cutting cross the species barrier- for after all there is only one Gaia (earth) and it is us sentient creature who’s existence is in contention, counter to the claim that the earth is in the crosshairs.

About the author : Kavinda Ratnapala read International Relations at University of London. Based in Sri Lanka, he dabbles in ethics, diplomacy, politics and environmentalism.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s own personal views. They do not necessarily reflect or represent the policy or position of any institution or individual he is affiliated with.

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