On the Trail of the Missing Ozone, Text Version
Welcome to the text version of On the Trail of the Missing Ozone! This story introduces ozone depletion, its causes and effects, and some solutions to the problem. Although originally created as an illustrated book, this text version contains the same information and is just as easy to understand. You will find links to additional information throughout the story. Note that these links are often to parts of the web site that are more advanced. Use your browser's back key to return to the story.
The first characters we meet are Farley (a newspaper reporter) and his editor. Along the way, Farley meets a scientist, a doctor, and a talking globe named George Global. He also talks to people who work for companies designing ozone-safe products. As the story begins, Farley is being called into his editor's office.
In the Newsroom of the Daily Requirement...Editor: Farley!
Farley: Yo, Chief!
Editor: Some scientists found a huge hole in the stratosphere over the south pole! They're saying that the ozone layer is being eaten up by some chemicals we make on Earth. I'm telling you Farley, this is big news! This could be a disaster of humongous proportions! I want you to get to the bottom of this story PRONTO!
Farley: Right, Chief!
Farley meets with a scientist...Farley: Let me see if I've got this...you're telling me that the ozone is a thin layer of atmosphere that protects us from the sun. It wraps all the way around the Earth, about 10 to 30 miles straight up. From the beginning of time, the ozone has blocked the sun's most dangerous ultraviolet, or UV, rays from reaching us. And it continues to keep UV radiation from harming life on the planet.
Scientist: That's right. Each ozone molecule is made up of three small oxygen atoms that act like a safety net to catch most of the UV rays and keep them from getting down to the Earth's surface. The ozone layer's big enemy is the chlorofluorocarbons.
Scientist: We call them CFCs. CFCs are chemicals we humans invented and we use them in many products that make up modern life. CFCs are used in manufacturing, to clean the insides of computers and to make plastic foam containers. We use CFCs inside refrigerators and to produce the cold air that blows out of every kind of air conditioner.
Farley: Air conditioners are dangerous!?!
Scientist: No, no, no. There's nothing dangerous about things that use CFCs to run, or things that we manufacture using CFCs. CFCs only become harmful when they escape into the air. They escape from leaks in air conditioners or refrigerators, or when someone throws away a used appliance without draining the leftover CFCs into a tank to be reused. CFCs can also get into the air during manufacturing.
Once CFCs escape, they can float around in the atmosphere for years and years before they break down. Finally, they drift into the upper atmosphere, and that's where the trouble starts...
Farley: But why should my readers care about CFCs? You can't even seem them, and the hole over the South Pole is sooo far away.
Scientist: Right now, there's a hole over almost all of Antarctica, and the ozone layer is thinning over areas where people live, like Australia and North America.
Look closely into my stratospheric viso-peeker. It will show you chlorine eating ozone molecules!
Scientist: The south pole has the worst problem because it is so cold and isolated there. The south pole has very long, super cold nights. During the night, tiny ice crystals trap CFC molecules and break them into smaller bits. One of the smaller pieces of a CFC molecule is ozone's worst enemy: chlorine.
When the sun comes up after the freezing night, sunlight wakes up the chlorine, triggering an attack on the ozone molecules. Chlorine bites into one of the one ozone molecule's oxygen atoms, and then another, and another. It's like a shark biting its way through a net, until finally the net is so frayed that it can't catch any fish. When the chlorine is finished, the ozone layer is so thin, it can't catch enough UV rays.
Farley: Why is it so important that the ozone layer filter out the UV rays?
Scientist: I'd like you to meet someone with firsthand experience on that subject.
Farley and the scientist go to another office...Scientist: Farley, this is George Global, the talking globe!
George Global: Hi! Let's see if I can explain this...
As the ozone gets thinner, more and more harmful UV rays reach the Earth's surface, and that starts an awful chain reaction among everything that lives and breathes in the oceans or on land.
In the ocean, the smallest creatures like plankton and tiny shrimps, called krill, are among the first victims of too much UV radiation. Plankton and krill are the basis of the ocean's food chain: these critters are nibbled like popcorn by bigger creatures, who are eaten by even bigger creatures. When too much of the sun gets through the ozone layer, the plankton die.
If all of these tiny one-celled creatures are fried up by the UV rays, then each set of bigger creatures loses its food supply and they all begin to starve.
George Global: Like plankton in the ocean, plants form the base of the Earth's food chain on land. When some kinds of plants are exposed to too much UV radiation, they grow slower and produce less food. As the ozone layer thins, the food supply shrinks all over the Earth. Animals can't get enough food from the plants to survive, and eventually people don't get enough food either.
Farley: Oh...that gives me a headache! I need medical attention!
Farley goes to a doctor...Farley: The headaches started when this little round guy, George Global, was telling me about the effects that destruction of the ozone layer can have on life as we know it.
Doctor: Did he tell you what too much UV radiation can do to people and animals? Too much UV radiation can cause severe sunburns. Even wearing sunscreen, the longer you stay out in the sun, the more you're exposed to UV rays.
Extra UV rays can cause early aging, wrinkling of the skin, and even worse --- skin cancer. It's been proven to cause cataracts, which result in cloudy vision, after years of exposure. If we could phase out the use of CFCs, it would be like curing skin cancer in millions and millions of people, erasing millions of cataracts from people's eyes, or growing billions of dollars' worth of food to feed people all over the world.
Farley returns to his office...Farley: If using CFCs is causing these awful problems, do we really need them? Someone out there must know how to get rid of them. Someone must be working on a solution to this!
Farley goes on a search...
Refrigeration Engineer: My company really has something to crow about. We're trying to reinvent air conditioners and refrigerators that run on a new fluid that doesn't contain any CFCs.
Computer Manufacturer: Some solutions are really simple. At our plant, we used to use liquid cleansers made with CFCs to wash off microprocessors - the computer's "brains" - to get them squeaky clean before they went into the computer. We found out that we can use lemon oil and water to do the same thing!
Car Repair Technician: I make sure my garage has the right equipment to repair the air conditioner in your car. I have a gizmo that captures refrigerants (cooling liquids) that contain CFCs, so they don't escape into the air, and the I can use 'em again. You know --- recycle 'em!
Farley returns to the newsroom...Editor: Great ozone story, Farley. Sounds like the hole in the ozone layer is something our readers really need to know about!
Farley: Right, Chief! The little round guy said to tell our readers something important...Aha! Here it is!
The control and elimination of CFCs is the most important thing we can do to stop the thinning of the ozone layer. New ozone is still being created by nature. So if we can slow down the damage by phasing out CFCs in products and manufacturing, the ozone layer should gradually come back.
By working together, people, governments, and businesses can stop making and using CFCs. In fact, many nations of the world have already stopped making CFCs as of 1996. Some countries, like the United States, have passed laws designed to keep the CFCs we're using from getting into the atmosphere. And, eventually, CFCs will not be used at all.
If we're smart, we can keep all life on the planet safe from too much UV radiation by protecting the ozone layer.
Editor: Right, Farley...terrific! Now get me the story of this globe that talks!
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