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Hole in the Ozone, or Hole in the Head?

No prizes for guessing which.

By Will Offensicht  |  August 27, 2008

With today's constant drumbeat of global warming alarmism, it's easy to forget that this is by no means the first time the environmentalists have threatened the End of the World.

It's not; in fact, they seem to make a regular habit of it.  While the media does not generally care to revisit the end results of the previous false alarms, it's really an enlightening subject for anyone who actually cares about both the environment and about human civilization.

The "Ozone Hole" was one of the very first environmental "crises" to enthrall the media.  The more formal term "Ozone depletion" described two phenomena which were clearly observable by science: 1) a steady decline of about 4% per decade in the total amount of ozone in the atmosphere and 2) a seasonal, but much larger, reduction in the amount of ozone over the poles.  The slow overall decline didn't get much ink; it was much snappier to bleat about the "Ozone hole" over the poles.

Ozone is a form of oxygen known as O3 which is formed when electric sparks pass through normal oxygen which is called O2.  Electrical energy such as lightning breaks apart O2 molecules and some of them form O3.

O3 blocks the sun's ultraviolet radiation.  With less O3 in the atmosphere, the crisis-mongers claimed, more ultraviolet hitting the earth would increase skin cancers, sunburn frogs to death, and bring about other such intolerable ills.

The scientists soon found that although O3 breaks down naturally to O2 over time, O3 breaks down faster when it comes into contact with compounds containing chlorine and bromine.  O3 is formed at a more-or-less constant rate due to lightning; the faster it breaks down, of course, the less there is in the atmosphere at any given time.  The more chlorine and bromine molecules are floating around the atmosphere, the faster O3 breaks down, so the less O3 you'll find at any given time.

Chlorine and bromine break down O3 and were therefore bad.

The most important sources of these chemicals were chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) compounds, commonly called freons, and of bromofluorocarbon compounds known as halons.  Worries about ozone escalated to the point that the "Montreal Protocol" banning the industrial use of these compounds came into force in 1989; the UN proclaimed "World Ozone Day" in 1994.

Ozone and Carbon Footprint

"Freon," a DuPont trade name for a CFC which was widely used in refrigerators and air conditioners, fell under the ban.

Unlike the "global warming crisis," the "Ozone crisis" wasn't serious enough to suggest that anyone actually give up anything; the treaty permitted substitute refrigerants instead of banning air conditioning outright.  DuPont supported the Montreal protocol to ban Freon.  The fact that their patent on Freon was about to expire and that they patented a new refrigerant just before the Montreal protocol was signed and their new gas just happened to pass the tests laid out in the protocol may or may not have had anything to do with their support.  Every crisis has its profiteers!

It costs several hundred dollars to recharge a car's air conditioning system with the Freon substitute versus $20 with Freon.  The new refrigerant could not be used in older equipment; expensive conversion was required, thereby collecting another brigade of unlikely ban supporters.

DuPont's patented compound not only cost more to make than Freon, it was not as effective as a refrigerant.  Thus, operating a new air conditioner or refrigerator took more energy than the equivalent Freon-based equipment;.  In other words, saving the ozone layer increased carbon footprint.

The ban on no-longer-patented Freon was the only reason for anyone to use the new patented refrigerant.  Both refrigerants are greenhouse gases to about the same degree; the justification for the switch was only to save the ozone layer.  Nobody was worrying much about greenhouse gases way back then.

What Happened?

It now appears that phasing out CFC has led to increased amounts of O3 remaining in the atmosphere.  Thus, the remedy enforced by the treaty had the desired effect of keeping more ozone in the atmosphere - a relatively unusual regulatory success, in that the bureaucratic remedy did in fact help to fix the problem it was supposed to fix.

Now we come to the unexpected effect.  The Montreal Protocol was signed even though it could not be proved that increased ultraviolet radiation would lead to increased cancers; epidemiologists agreed that the linkage was a reasonable assumption but they couldn't prove it.

In other words, costly change was imposed even though it could not be proved that decreased ozone levels would cause any harm at all.  Sound typical of environmental warnings?  Much yelling, screaming, legislation, and cost based on little or no evidence?

It gets better.

An article "As ozone hole heals, Antarctic could heat up" in Science News, July 5, 2008, p 10 says:

Via a complicated cascade of events, a full recovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the coming years could significantly boost warming of the atmosphere over the icy continent.

After years of decline, the springtime concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere high over Antarctica have begun to increase - a sign that the ozone hole is recovering.

That's the good news.  Here's the bad news:

In one sense, however, the ozone hole is somewhat beneficial: It has kept Antarctica cooler than it otherwise would have been, ... The lower atmosphere over Antarctica lacks ozone in the springtime and doesn't absorb as much ultraviolet radiation.  Therefore, it is much cooler than normal, ... [emphasis added]

Guess what?  Ultraviolet radiation carries energy, lots of it - that's why it causes sunburn and why solar heaters work.  When ozone in the air absorbs the ultraviolet radiation instead of passing it down to your skin, the air gets warmer and there's less ultraviolet energy available to power solar heaters.

When there's less ozone in the air, the air doesn't absorb as much UV energy; the air stays cooler, solar energy collection systems work better, and whatever frogs might happen to reside at the poles die of sunburn.  That's why Science News called the ozone hole "somewhat beneficial."

What happens to Antarctic ice as increasing amounts of ozone in the air over it absorb more radiation and the air gets warmer?  The ice melts.  Curing the ozone hole melts more ice and increases sea levels!

If Al Gore is seriously worried about rising sea levels, he ought to advocate letting us return to unpatented, cheaper Freon.  We could save money, cut carbon footprint by using less energy running air conditioners, reduce ozone concentrations, make solar energy systems more effective, cool the air over Antarctica, and Save the Planet!

Ozone might be good for frogs who can't afford sunscreen and shades, but it's bad for sea levels and for solar energy.

Shouting slogans is simple and makes activists feel good about themselves.  It's too bad that really Saving the Planet turns out to be so complicated.