Remember back in the ’80s when the hole in the ozone layer was going to melt the world and we were all going to die of horrible skin cancers? It was all the rage at the time. Well, now it’s the smallest it’s been in nearly 30 years. But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet–it’s still massive, and as NASA explained, “The smaller ozone hole extent in 2016 and 2017 is due to natural variability and not a signal of rapid healing.” Right now, it’s about twice as big as the US, or nearly 8 million square miles.
According to NASA, “the ozone hole reached its peak extent on Sept. 11 … and then declined through the remainder of September and into October. NOAA ground-and balloon-based measurements also showed the least amount of ozone depletion above the continent during the peak of the ozone depletion cycle since 1988.”
It was 1985, to be exact, when researchers officially found that the ozone layer had a giant, gaping wound in it. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t exactly a hole–just an alarmingly thin area. They’d been theorizing since the early ’70s, however, that all the weird new shit we were creating back then could deplete the ozone layer. It floats around somewhere between 10 and 20 miles up and acts as a giant sunblock from about 90 percent the sun’s high-frequency ultraviolet rays–you know, the ones that burn you and give you cancer.
Unlike these days, people listened to science (crazy, right?), and a global effort was made to help the ozone layer patch itself up. Researchers decided that the hole was caused mostly by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs from now on because that’s a lot of letters) and various refrigerants. CFCs are terrible little things because they last for a really long time, and since their invention in the 1920s, we’ve puked a lot of them out.
Without getting too technical, here’s why CFCs and their ilk are bad for the ozone layer: Ozone’s chemical formula is 03, while oxygen’s is 02. Those numbers mean that there are two oxygen atoms in an oxygen molecule and three in an ozone molecule. Ozone is created when sunlight in the stratosphere breaks down oxygen molecules into two free oxygen atoms. Then, one of those free atoms hooks up with an unbroken oxygen molecule floating around and makes ozone. When CFCs make their way up to that rarified air, ultraviolet light smashes the molecular bonds and releases chlorine, which, as anyone who has stuck their nose above one of those floating pool cleaners knows, steals oxygen. That, of course, kills the ozone molecules and we’re left with a very thin layer of ozone layer, like a threadbare section of a blanket.
So why is it thinner than it’s been in three decades? Well, for a couple of reasons. Some of which (pat that back!) have to do with the global effort to stop using so much god damn hairspray. Back then, CFCs were used in everything from aerosols to refrigerants. Since it was during those wacky times when science and facts were respected, every country in the United Nations came together and signed up for the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Luckily, there weren’t many CFC lobbyists around to convince a few God-fearin’ officials that science was, in fact, bullshit.
“If we had just kept letting CFCs increase at a pretty nominal rate, characteristic of the 1970s, the decreased ozone levels of the hole would have eventually covered the entire planet,” said atmospheric physicist Paul Newman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to National Geographic in 2010.”Global ozone dropped a little bit [after CFCs were banned], but the good news is that if we had done nothing, it would have gotten really, really bad.”
Everyone’s still optimistic, too–some estimates say that the ozone layer will be back to its old self again by 2080. Here’s a bit of bad news, though: while it is shrinking, the real reason why it’s so much smaller this year is that the planet is warming up (according to science, at least). “This shrinking hole is also associated with the warm and unstable weather conditions in the Antarctic stratosphere, as well as warmer global temperatures,” wrote Tom Hale for IFLScience. “Ozone depletion occurs in cold temperatures, so the ozone hole reaches its annual maximum in September or October, at the end of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.”