Ozone Depletion by Hydrofluorocarbons
A class of widely used chemical coolants known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) contributes to ozone depletion by a small but measurable amount, countering a decades-old assumption, according to a new NASA study.
The ozone layer comprises a belt of ozone molecules located primarily in the lower stratosphere. It is responsible for absorbing most of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation before it reaches Earth’s surface. Research in the 1990s showed that HFCs, which have replaced more powerful ozone-depleting chemical coolants in recent years, destroy a negligible amount of ozone. But that conclusion was reached by examining only the gases’ ability to break down ozone molecules through chemical reactions that take place following the breakdown of these molecules in the atmosphere.
The new study, which focused on the five types of HFCs expected to contribute the most to global warming in 2050, found that the gases indirectly contribute to ozone depletion. HFC emissions cause increased warming of the stratosphere, speeding up the chemical reactions that destroy ozone molecules, and they also decrease ozone levels in the tropics by accelerating the upward movement of ozone-poor air. According to the model, their impact is such that HFCs will cause a 0.035 percent decrease in ozone by 2050.
HFCs’ contribution to ozone depletion is small compared to its predecessors. For example, trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11, a once common coolant that is no longer used, causes about 400 times more ozone depletion per unit mass than HFCs.
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NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
PapersThis visualization is based on the following papers:
- Hurwitz, M. M., E. L. Fleming, P. A. Newman, F. Li, E. Mlawer, K. Cady-Pereira, and R. Bailey (2015), Ozone depletion by hydrofluorocarbons, Geophys. Res. Lett., 42, 8686–8692, doi:10.1002/2015GL065856.