The earths climate is predicted to change because human activities are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere through the build up of greenhouse gases primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
Energy from the sun drives the earths weather and climate, and heats the earths surface. This causes the earth to radiate the energy back into space. Atmospheric greenhouse gases (water vapour, carbon dioxide, and other gases) trap some of the outgoing energy, retaining heat similar to the glass panels of a greenhouse.
Without this natural greenhouse effect, temperatures would be much lower than they are now, and life as known today would not be possible. Instead, thanks to greenhouse gases, the earths average temperature is a more hospitable 24 C. However, problems may arise when the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases increases.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased nearly 30%. Methane concentrations have more than doubled, and nitrous oxide concentrations have risen by about 15%. Due to the concentrations increasing the heat-trapping capability of the earths atmosphere is enhanced.
Greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing. Scientists generally believe that the combustion of fossil fuels and other human activities are the primary reason for the increased concentration of carbon dioxide. Plant respiration and the decomposition of organic matter release more than 10 times the CO released by human activities; but these releases have always been in balance with the carbon dioxide absorbed by plant photosynthesis. What has changed in the last few hundred years is the additional release of carbon dioxide by human activities. Energy burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses are responsible for about 80% of society’s carbon dioxide emissions and about 20% of global nitrous oxide emissions. Increased agriculture, deforestation, landfills, industrial production, and mining also contribute a significant share of emissions. Estimating future emissions is difficult, because it depends on economic, technological, and institutional developments.
The Hole in the Ozone Layer
Discovery of the hole in the ozone layer showed that human activity has a major impact on Earth. The destruction of ozone in the stratosphere high above the planet’s surface has been brought about as the result of the widespread use of chemicals, which under normal conditions are chemically inert and harmless.
Ozone occurs at all levels in the atmosphere, but most of it is found in the stratosphere, between about 15-50 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Even there it occurs in minute concentrations, but it plays a very important role. Ozone absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation which is produced by the Sun. Ultraviolet radiation can damage cells of living things – plants, animals and people. Whereas small doses result in nothing worse than sunburn, larger amounts may cause cataracts or skin cancer, and can affect the growth of plants.
The breakdown of ozone has been caused by complex chemical reactions involving chlorine and bromine. The ozone is produced like this: O2(g) + UV radiation 2O(g) O2(g) + O(g) O3(g) Decomposition: O3(g) + UV radiation O2(g) + O(g) O(g) + O(g) O2(g) Although small amounts of these elements occur naturally in the stratosphere – for instance chlorine is produced by volcanic eruptions – the major breakdown of ozone over the last twenty years has been caused by man-made chemicals. Large amounts of gas called CFCs were produced this century for use in everyday appliances like fridges, aerosol spray cans, and fire extinguishers. At ground level, these compounds are chemically non-reactive. However they are carried on wind systems up into the high atmosphere, where the ozone layer is. Up here, CFCs can be broken up by the intense sunlight, releasing chlorine through this equation: CCl3F(g) + UV radiation CCl2F(g) + Cl(g)
The hole in the ozone layer is formed over the Antarctic continent each spring. During the dark Antarctic winter, the atmosphere becomes colder than anywhere else on Earth. Strong winds enclose the cold air above the Antarctic, allowing ice clouds to form. The ice crystals provide the sites where chlorine reacts with ozone when sunlight returns in the spring, and results in the ozone hole. In early summer, the ozone hole mixes with the rest of the stratosphere. Over the past years, the concentrations of chlorine in the atmosphere have been steadily increasing, and more ozone has been destroyed.
Ozone itself is a useful protective layer high above our heads, but in the cities is an irritating pollutant. The CFCs have other effects too. As well as contributing to the breakdown of ozone, CFCs are also very effective ‘greenhouse gases’, contributing to a gradual warming of the atmosphere. However, the possible change in climate resulting from increases in various greenhouse gases might actually make the stratosphere colder, not warmer. Even if we were able to reduce CFC emissions effectively, these lower temperatures could mean that ozone destruction would continue.
Governments of many countries agreed in 1987 to the Montreal Protocol in an effort to reduce the amount of CFCs being produced, and so protect the ozone layer. Since then, this agreement has been strengthened; more countries have signed it, and more substances included for control. As a result, the amount of chlorine and bromine in the atmosphere seems to be decreasing. With less chlorine in the atmosphere the ozone hole should become smaller, and eventually close up, but it is likely to take 20-30 years for this to happen.