What Impact Does Ozone Depletion Have On Plant And Animal Life?
Every September 16, we celebrate World Ozone Day. It is high time that we ask ourselves, ‘what impact does ozone depletion have on plant and animal life?’ and why should we, as humans, be concerned?
They say that the “sky's the limit.” Perhaps, that is why not many people are aware of what is happening in the sky and beyond. There are many initiatives to heal the Earth—from the ground to the deepest oceans—but not much attention to our ozone layer.
According to History, on May 16, 1985, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey first discovered “low-levels of ozone over the South Pole '' or what we now know as the Ozone Hole. This discovery took everyone by surprise. Who knew that humans could be capable of putting a hole in the atmosphere? Since then, global organizations quickly came to the rescue.
But how is our ozone layer today? Indeed the collective effort of all countries was enough to at least help decrease the hole up in the sky. Sadly, the hole in our ozone layer continues to increase in size and affects life on Earth—from plants, marine ecosystems to our daily lives.
In this article:
Effects of Ozone Depletion
The ozone layer acts as Earth’s personal sun shield. It is crucial to keep the sun’s ultraviolet rays from completely penetrating through Earth at full force, filtering 98% of harmful UV rays off of our planet. In turn, Earth gets only the good rays needed for life to thrive and just enough heat to maintain the Earth’s temperature.
On that note, the deterioration of the ozone layer is allowing more harmful rays from the sun into Earth. One of these is UVB, which can cause cellular DNA damage within 15 minutes of exposure.
So, what impact does ozone depletion have on plant and animal life?
The depletion of the ozone layer means more harmful UV rays are reaching Earth’s surface. Plants cannot quickly adapt to the increasing radiation levels, which can significantly affect their physiological and developmental processes. It changes the plant’s form, nutrient distribution, development stages, metabolism (photosynthesis), and reproduction, leading to plant diseases and biogeochemical cycles—the cycling of matter in the Earth’s system or the circle of life.
Humans and Animals
The sun’s harmful rays affect humans and animals in similar ways. The cellular damage that UV rays can impose has major health implications, such as skin cancer, the formation of cataracts, blindness, and a weak immune system.
You may be asking, “How does ozone depletion impact human health?”
Exposure to UV rays “induces skin cancer by causing mutation in DNA and suppressing certain activities of the immune system,” according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. There will be an increase in non-melanoma skin cancer, less resistance to diseases like herpes and skin lesions, and premature aging of the skin and eyes. Not only that but, exposure to UVB rays decreases the body’s immunological response. It will heighten the risk and severity of infectious disease and even affect the efficacy of vaccinations.
Ozone depletion can radically change marine ecosystems. It can damage cellular division in the development of oceanic offspring and alter the movements and orientation of tiny organisms through ocean waters.
Natural waters indeed have UV-absorbing substances, like dissolved organic matter, protecting aquatic organisms from UVB. Still, the level of UVB protection is not the same for each body of water. For instance, UVB can penetrate several tens of meters in clear oceans and lake waters. Organisms—like phytoplanktons—living close to the water surface can be drastically affected because it is where most UVB exposure occurs,
Phytoplanktons play a crucial role in maintaining the acidity of bodies of water by filtering carbon. With the decrease of these organisms, oceans can be too acidic, which will affect the number of endangered marine species.
As different species have different reactions and tolerance for harmful UV rays, ocean depletion potentially shifts diversity and species composition in ecosystems, especially underwater.
Ozone Hole Reached Peak in 2020
The Montreal Protocol, which is “the first treaty to achieve universal ratification by all countries in the world,” was successful enough to help reduce the size of ozone depletion by 1989 through a unitive effort to ban ozone-depleting substances.
However, in current times, NASA reported that “the annual ozone hole reached its peak area at 24.8 million square kilometers (9.6 million square miles)” last year, September 20, 2020. If you wonder how extensive the damage is, just imagine the entire continent of the United States, then multiply it by three.
So, does that mean that all those decades of trying to heal our ozone layer are not working? Not entirely. As per the information from the same NASA report, the leading cause of the extensive ozone depletion is “persistent cold temperatures and strong circumpolar winds.” Thanks to the stringent prohibitions of ozone-depleting chemicals of the Montreal Protocol, the hole is not as big as it would have been if no efforts were taken into account at all.
Ozone layer expert and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s chief Earth scientist Paul Newman said, “We have a long way to go, but that improvement made a big difference this year. The hole would have been about a million square miles larger if there was still as much chlorine in the stratosphere as there was in 2000.”
Yet, the extent of the damage to our ozone layer still imposes many threats to life here on Earth. Not to mention, the amount of ozone-depleting substances are still high enough to cause continuous damage to the atmosphere despite its declining amount.
Cause of Ozone Depletion
The second layer of the atmosphere from the ground up is the stratosphere, where you can find the ozone layer. Although there are only a few ozone molecules in the air, it plays a crucial role in protecting life on Earth.
Here is a quick video from National Geographic explaining what causes ozone depletion and the importance of our ozone layer:
To put it simply, the primary suspect or cause of ozone depletion is chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. These are liquified chemicals that you often find in everyday household items like aerosol sprays, plastics, and packaging. It can also be a cooling substance for refrigerators, air conditioning, and insulations. The chlorine in CFCs is what technically kills off the ozone molecules in the stratosphere.
NatGeo reports, “One atom of chlorine can destroy more than 100,000 ozone molecules, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, eradicating ozone much more quickly than it can be replaced.” When the CFCs from Earth's surface reach the stratosphere, the UV rays from the sun break it down and produce chlorine, which then kills the ozone molecules.
Ozone depletion rates fluctuate every year as the ozone molecule often reacts to seasonal changes and latitude—the reason why the lowest concentrations of ozone usually happen annually around the latter half of the year, starting September. Hence, at times, the amount of damage may seem to be healing when it is not.
Look at this report from NASA, last August:
NASA Ozone Watch. Source: NASA
The blue and purple colors have the least ozone, and the yellows and reds show more ozone. As you can see, the area with the least ozone was less at the beginning of August. But as the seasons shift into much cooler temperatures, the area increases. Hence, aside from CFCs, weather can also cause an increase in the size of the ozone hole.
You can monitor NASA’s regular ozone mapping here.
Ozone Restoration Possible in Our Lifetime
The discovery of the hole in the ozone layer may be a shocker, but it gave an excellent heads-up and a call to action. Assuming that we fail to recognize the amount of damage to the atmosphere, the hole will be more massive today than we ever expected.
Thanks to the continuous efforts to control the use of ozone-depleting substances and creating alternatives like hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), we restored 1-3% of the ozone layer in 2019, according to the Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion in a United Nations report. At this rate, the good news is: we can heal the ozone layer in our lifetime. The UN's Environment Programme says the “Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone will heal completely by the 2030s.”
The depletion of the ozone layer can ultimately affect life as we know it. Hence, it would only be necessary to live as ecologically responsibly as we can as Earth’s stewards. If you are into surfing, help keep our oceans clean and healthy by using eco-friendly surfing gear from us, Wave Tribe, like our recycled plastic leash and hemp board bags.
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