The Angry Sky
A. Kam Napier
(page 1 of 7)
The sky has had it and is not going to protect you from the sun anymore. And, since you live in sunny Hawaii, you may have a real problem.
Imagine this. Your friends all have skin cancer or cataracts. Your favorite beach is under water. Everything you own that goes outdoors has yellowed and faded. Heat wave after heat wave pummels you. You can’t remember when you last had fish for dinner. When there isn’t too much rain, there’s not enough.
All of this and more is very likely to happen in Hawaii over the next hundred years as we feel combined effects of both ozone depletion and global warming. If you think you know all you need to know about ozone depletion and global warming, read this article—you may be in for a few surprises. If the terms have elicited nothing but yawns in the past, take a seat and hang on tight. The effects of ozone depletion and global warming threaten your health, your lifestyle and your pocketbook. You need this information.
Our story begins 19 kilometers up, in the frosty regions of the stratosphere, where we find our friend—
The Ozone Layer. Ozone, a.k.a. O3, is simply three atoms of oxygen clumped together in a single molecule. The stuff is naturally created when high-energy ultraviolet radiation hits the atmosphere. New ozone is made all the time, mostly in the tropics. The wonderful thing about the ozone layer is that it absorbs ultraviolet light coming at us from the sun—nearly all of the UV-C, which is lethal, and most of the UV-B, which is what causes sunburns.
Tiny amounts of naturally occurring gases have always eaten away at the ozone layer, but never beyond its ability to regenerate. The term ozone depletion refers to the process of manmade chemicals destroying ozone faster than it is produced. The chief culprits are chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and are probably best known by a DuPont trademark for a particular CFC—Freon. Freons CFC-11 and CFC-12 are synthetics that have only been around for 60 years. Most CFCs have been used in air conditioners, refrigerators and other cooling systems, and have also found widespread use in blowing foam shapes (like foam cups) and cleaning electronics. In the 1970s, concern about the ozone layer led to a ban on CFCs, but only in aerosol sprays, such as deodorants and hair sprays.
How do CFCs damage the ozone layer? CFCs were originally thought to be safe for people and the environment. The reason for this, and the reason CFCs are perfect for the jobs they do, is that their molecules are totally inert at sea level. They don’t react with anything. So you can fill a closed cooling system, such as an air conditioner, with Freon and leave it in there indefinitely, without it rusting out the pipes.
However, once an inert CFC molecule leaks into the atmosphere, it’s not so harmless. Eventually, atmospheric circulation takes it into the stratosphere, where the trouble begins. The same high-energy ultraviolet radiation that makes ozone out of oxygen also breaks apart the CFC molecule, releasing a single atom of chlorine. When this chlorine atom runs into an ozone molecule, it rips off one of the oxygen atoms for itself and becomes a chlorine monoxide molecule, leaving just O2, which does nothing to absorb UV radiation. And the damage doesn’t end there. A loose, single oxygen atom then pulls the stolen oxygen atom off the chlorine atom, again forming another O2 molecule and leaving the chlorine atom untouched. In other words, these loose chlorine atoms are extremely destructive because they are not themselves consumed by the process of breaking apart ozone molecules. According to Dr. Alan Teramura, dean of UH College of Natural Sciences and an international expert on the effects of ozone depletion on plants., it’s estimated that a single chlorine atom can break apart about 100,000 ozone molecules. And it has all the time in the world to do so, since some CFC’s can last as long as 110 years in the atmosphere.
Do you like what you read? Subscribe to HONOLULU Magazine »