Susan Solomon 

September 15, 2006
NOAA Magazine —
years ago this August, NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, along with other
government and university scientists, identified the cause of the Antarctic
ozone hole — a discovery that is still being celebrated as the most
significant scientific/global environmental success story of the 20th century.
Within five years of the hole’s discovery by the British Antarctic Survey,
Solomon’s proposed chemistry for the linkage of increases in long-lived
man-made chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) primarily responsible for the seasonal
Antarctic ozone hole was confirmed and the Montreal Protocol on Substances
that Deplete the Ozone Layer (the first treaty to address the Earth’s
environment) was enacted to phase out these compounds. As a result, the global
production of these ozone-depleting compounds is now greatly reduced and there
are signs that the ozone hole is slowly stepping into a recovery phase — both
CFC and ozone levels are showing signs of leveling off and some CFCs have even
started to decrease.

“This is an
example of the quality science conducted by NOAA scientists and their
colleagues, often in extreme conditions, and how it informs those who make
decisions that affect our daily lives,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C.
Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and
NOAA administrator. “Through this work, the nation has gained a better
understanding of our atmosphere, which is a key element of NOAA’s mission.”

David Hofmann,
director of the NOAA Global Atmospheric Monitoring Program described the
status of the ozone layer today as, “the patient hasn’t recovered, but it’s
not getting any sicker. We really have not seen any recovery in Antarctica.”
NOAA predicts that it could take until 2060 for the ozone layer to heal
completely, provided humans stop all release of man-made substances containing
chlorine (or bromine).

The Ozone Layer
The ozone layer is a thin, invisible layer of the Earth’s atmosphere about 15
miles thick. In nature, ozone production and destruction are balanced, but the
introduction of man-made compounds has upset this balance. Much like sunscreen
for the Earth, the ozone layer shields the Earth from the sun’s damaging UV-B
radiation, which can adversely affect human health and ecosystems.

The Ozone
Depletion Story
Solomon once described the story of ozone depletion in terms of phases: phases
of matter (gas, solid and liquid), phases of scientific discovery and phases
of public awareness and global policy decisions. The following article
highlights this concept and NOAA’s role in the story of Antarctic and global
ozone depletion.

The History and
the Science behind the Antarctic Ozone Hole
Although some ozone depletion by CFCs had been suspected (due to “gas phase”
ozone depletion in the upper reaches of the stratospheric ozone layer in the
presence of sunlight near 40 kilometers) and there was enough concern
regarding this issue that some relevant environmental policy had been enacted
(i.e., several countries agreed to ban the use of CFCs in spray cans), there
was little direct evidence of ozone depletion by these chemicals in the 1970s.

In fact, by 1983,
a United States National Research Council report projected that continued use
of CFCs at then-current rates would probably lead to depletion of the total
global ozone layer by only about three percent in about a century. Many argued
that this was a small effect, far in the future, and subject to large

Discovery of the Antarctic Ozone Hole The situation changed dramatically with
the publication of the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole by British
Antarctic survey scientist, Joseph Farman, and his colleagues in 1985.
Although the British researchers first doubted the validity of their own
measurements — taken in the springtime ozone layer above Halley Bay,
Antarctica — their work was quickly confirmed by measurements from satellites
and from other Antarctic research stations. Having monitored ozone levels at
that site for decades, Farman noticed that the ozone layer thinned every
spring (starting in August/September and reaching a minimum in early October)
over Antarctica and that the thinning started to increase in the late 1970’s.

Ozone appeared to
be depleted not by a few percent, but by about a third and not in the far
future, but just a few years after the National Research Council said little
would occur for a century. This and the fact that observed ozone losses
occurred concurrently with increases of CFC-11 and CFC-12 concentrations in
the troposphere raised fears that ozone depletion may have been drastically
underestimated. Furthermore, the ozone depletion was not occurring at the very
top of the ozone layer (near 40 kilometers), as expected from gas-phase
chlorine chemistry, but at an entirely different height range from about 10-20
kilometers (the very heart of the ozone layer). It was clear that this ozone
depletion was not only larger than had been expected, but totally different in
character. It could not be explained by the then-current ozone depletion
theories involving “gas phase” chemistry, so a massive shift in scientific
understanding was needed to explain this change in ozone depletion from global
to polar, and from 40 kilometers down to 10-20 kilometers.

Antarctic Ozone
Hole Ozone Theories
The discovery of the ozone depletion blindsided the scientific community,
leaving them without a suitable explanation. But within a few months,
scientists came up with three competing ideas that could explain why an ozone
hole — larger than the size of the entire continental United States — had
developed over Antarctica. Two theories stressed natural processes, but a
third theory — proposed by Solomon — suggested that human-made chemicals were
to blame.

Solomon’s Theory
According to Solomon’s theory, the cold conditions above Antarctica greatly
amplified the ozone-destroying power of CFCs, accelerating the loss in this
region. Specifically, chemical reactions involving hydrochloric acid on the
surface of the Antarctic’s icy polar stratospheric clouds increased the amount
of chlorine present in active, ozone-destroying forms, beginning over the dark
winter months. Once the sun returned in the Antarctic springtime, a second
(photochemical) reaction involving these reactive chlorine compounds would
cause a massive, though localized and seasonal, ozone depletion.

laboratory and field measurements (from the ground, balloon borne and from
high-altitude airplanes) confirmed Solomon’s theory that the ozone hole was
caused by the interaction of CFCs, sunlight and the icy clouds that form in
that special region of the Earth. Scientists had gravely underestimated the
chemicals’ destructive power, and the ozone layer faced even more danger than
previously thought.

Evidence: Verifying the Role of CFCs and Surface Chemistry
In Aug. 1986, the National Ozone Expedition (or NOZE) was dispatched to the
McMurdo station in Antarctic to make some of the first measurements of key
chlorine and nitrogen containing gases to test the new “surface” ozone
depletion chemistry.

Solomon was an
atmospheric chemist at the then-NOAA Aeronomy Laboratory (now the NOAA
Chemical Sciences Division) in Boulder, Colo., when she led the NOAA team.
David Hofmann, then with the University of Wyoming, headed the UW team. He
later joined NOAA and is now the Director of ESRL’s Global Monitoring
Division. Both were funded by NSF, which operates the McMurdo Station at the
South Pole. Researchers from NASA and the State University of New York (SUNY)
at Stoneybrook, rounded out the scientific party. Other sponsors included
NOAA, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the U.S. Navy and ITT Antarctic

NOAA Measurements
at McMurdo Station
Solomon and the rest of the NOAA team used ground-based visible absorption
techniques to measure ozone, nitrogen dioxide and chlorine dioxide. Solomon
recounts that the NOAA team arrived at McMurdo station in late August, before
the sun was above the horizon, and hence before substantial ozone loss began
at that location. “One of the stunning experiences of my life in science was
to witness the ozone levels drop at McMurdo during September 1986,” said
Solomon. “Ozone fell from about 300 Dobson Units when we arrived in Antarctica
in late August 1986 to less than 200 Dobson Units by late September, and the
disappearance of a third of the total ozone supported the observations of
others regarding the veracity of the ozone hole and its seasonality.”

The falling ozone
was accompanied by a spectacular enhancement in chlorine dioxide. Chlorine
dioxide was a particularly important early measurement because that molecule
is proportional to other reactive forms of chlorine (i.e., Cl and ClO).
Solomon’s measurements of greatly enhanced chlorine dioxide therefore showed
that the polar stratospheric clouds were indeed liberating chlorine. The
nitrogen dioxide was in contrast extremely low, further confirming
expectations based upon polar stratospheric cloud chemistry. The proposed
surface chemistry converts nitrogen-containing gases to nitric acid (HNO3),
which impedes the reformation of “unreactive” chlorine nitrate (ClONO2) and
thereby further enhances the ozone loss by allowing chlorine to stay in its
active ozone-destroying forms longer. As temperatures rose in early October,
the chlorine dioxide disappeared and the nitrogen dioxide increased, again as
expected. Thus the seasonal behavior of both molecules supported Solomon’s
theory. Furthermore, as verified by the University of Wyoming balloon
measurements, the ozone losses were confined primarily to the lower
stratosphere, between about 12 and 20 kilometers, as would be expected for the
new surface ozone depletion chemistry.

In the end, all
four of the major NOZE teams successfully measured the key chlorine and
nitrogen containing compounds indicative of the new surface ozone depletion
chemistry. This data, along with additional findings from the NOZE II mission
in 1987 and the Airborne Antarctic Ozone Experiment (also known as AAOE) the
same year, showed conclusively that human-produced trace gases that contain
chlorine (and bromine) had caused the ozone hole.

Montreal Protocol
on Substances that Deplete the Ozone On Sept. 16, 1987, diplomats from around
the world met in Montreal and forged a treaty unprecedented in the history of
international negotiations. Environmental ministers from 24 nations,
representing most of the industrialized world, agreed to set sharp limits on
the use of CFCs (and Halons).

More Ozone
Depletion in the North Having seen that chlorine dioxide was greatly enhanced
in Antarctica, Solomon and her colleagues went north to Thule, Greenland in
Jan. 1988, to search for enhanced chlorine chemistry in the Arctic. Indeed
there were clear signs that chlorine dioxide was also significantly enhanced
in the north compared to gas-phase chemistry, but at levels much lower than
those observed in the Antarctic (as would be expected since Arctic
temperatures usually warm up in spring much earlier than in the Antarctic,
limiting the overlap between sunlight and cold temperatures and thus ozone
depletion). Therefore, both the Antarctica and Arctic polar ozone loss
appeared to depend upon the overlap between chemical perturbations due to cold
temperatures, associated polar stratospheric clouds and sunlight.

1990 London
Amendments The fast-paced research of the late 1980s led diplomats to conclude
that the original Montreal Protocol would not go far enough toward protecting
the fragile ozone layer. Therefore, in June 1990, diplomats met in London and
voted to significantly strengthen the Montreal Protocol.

New Phases in
Understanding Surface Chemistry
At the time of discovery of the ozone hole, it was thought that polar
stratospheric clouds were composed entirely of solid particles, mainly water
ice. But in addition to the solid phase, NOAA scientists also made leading
discoveries showing that the liquid phase was also important to stratospheric
chemistry, and that the solid and liquid particles of the stratosphere contain
additional chemical species besides water. Because all of these surfaces were
found to drive much of the same surface chemistry, this discovery relaxed the
threshold for enhanced ozone loss related to surface chemistry from extremely
cold temperatures to a far more widespread phenomenon affecting latitudes
outside the polar regions.

Furthermore, NOAA
scientists Hofmann and Solomon realized that the abundances of ozone depleting
substances were greatly enhanced after explosive volcanic eruptions. Solomon
and her colleagues have made several contributions to the understanding of
liquid phase chemistry in the stratosphere, particularly regarding the role of
volcanic effects.

While the
discovery and explanation of the Antarctic ozone hole was important to policy
deliberations, the identification and explanation of ozone loss at
mid-latitudes helped inspire further action by policymakers to reduce
emissions of CFCs (e.g., Copenhagen and Beijing Amendments).

Closing thoughts
Cold temperatures, solid polar stratospheric clouds, and liquid volcanic
particles are all factors that modulate the ozone depletion, but the
fundamental cause of the loss is human use ofCFCs (and, to a lesser extent,


Solomon and her
NOAA colleagues have been involved in multiple phases of understanding of
ozone loss chemistry both through modeling and observations. The picture has
evolved from the gas-phase alone to solids and liquids. Further, the
understanding of liquid phase chemistry has led to an evolution of thinking
from extreme cold to less extreme, expanding both the processes that must be
considered and where they can occur in altitude and latitude.

Depletion in the Antarctic Springtime


+ ClONO2 → HNO3 +


+ sunlight → Cl + Cl


+ O32ClO
+ 2O2


+ 2O → 2Cl + 2O2


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