Ozone hole at smallest size in decades

Warm Antarctic temperatures help preserve UV-protecting layer

There’s good news from Antarctica this fall: The seasonal hole in the ozone layer above the continent reached its smallest maximum extent and second smallest average in 20 years thanks to warm air temperatures.

SHRINKING OZONE HOLE On September 22 (right), the hole in the ozone layer (blue and purple) above Antarctica reached its smallest maximum size in two decades, covering 21.2 million square kilometers. The largest ozone hole on record occurred on September 9, 2000 (left), measuring 29.9 million square kilometers. GSFC/NASA

Each September and October the ozone layer, which shields Earth from ultraviolet radiation from the sun, thins over the South Pole. On September 22, the ozone hole grew to its biggest seasonal size: 21.2 million square kilometers, an area slightly smaller than North America. That’s the smallest the ozone hole has been at its annual maximum since 1990. Satellite and ground-based measurements collected by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the average size of the 2012 ozone hole at 17.7 million square kilometers, the smallest average since 2002.

Reactions with chlorine from human-made chlorofluorocarbon gas are largely responsible for destroying the ozone layer. Frigid temperatures help promote this destruction. But natural weather fluctuations led to warmer Antarctic temperatures this year, which limited the damage, NASA and NOAA scientists say.

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

More Stories from Science News on Earth