2023’s ozone hole is one of the biggest on record. Why?

2023's ozone hole: Satellite image of Earth color coded showing a large gray ozone hole.
Measurements from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite show that 2023’s ozone hole over Antarctica is huge! Image via ESA.

ESA originally published this article on October 4, 2023. Edits by EarthSky.

We got used to hearing scientists say, “The ozone hole is getting smaller.” The annual hole, which appears in late winter over Antarctica, varies in size as weather changes. And it changes slightly from day to day and week to week. But overall, the size of the hole has been decreasing through the past two decades. This is a result of international agreement to eliminate ozone-depleting chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere, via the Montreal Protocol, adopted in September 1987. But, in 2023, something changed.

Measurements of 2023’s ozone hole – from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite – show that this year’s ozone hole over Antarctica is one of the biggest on record. The hole is what scientists call an ‘ozone depleting area.’ It reached a size of over 10 million square miles (26 million square km) on September 16, 2023. This is roughly three times the size of Brazil.

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Measuring 2023’s ozone hole

The size of the ozone hole fluctuates on a regular basis. For example, from August to October, the ozone hole increases in size and reaches a maximum between mid-September to mid-October. Then, when temperatures high up in the stratosphere start to rise in the southern hemisphere, the ozone depletion slows. Also, the polar vortex weakens and finally breaks down. So by the end of December ozone levels return to normal.

Launched in October 2017, Copernicus Sentinel-5P – short for Sentinel-5 Precursor – is dedicated to monitoring our atmosphere.

The satellite carries an advanced multispectral imaging spectrometer called Tropomi. It detects atmospheric gases in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to image a wide range of pollutants.

The Tropomi total ozone measurements are processed within the Sentinel-5P ground segment at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

According to scientists

Diego Loyola, a DLR senior scientist, commented:

The Sentinel-5P total ozone products have an accuracy at the percentage level compared with ground-based data. This allows us to closely monitor the ozone layer and its evolution. The Tropomi measurements are extending the global ozone data record of European satellite sensors covering almost three decades.

The Sentinel-5P total ozone column product is provided within three hours after measurement time to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). CAMS is implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) on behalf of the European Union. It includes these near-realtime Sentinel-5P ozone data in their data analysis and forecast system.

CAMS senior scientist Antje Inness, said:

Our operational ozone monitoring and forecasting service shows that the 2023 ozone hole got off to an early start and has grown rapidly since mid-August. It reached a size of over 26 million square km on September 16 making it one of the biggest ozone holes on record. Tropomi ozone data are an important dataset for our ozone analysis.

Why is 2023’s ozone hole so big?

The variability of the size of the ozone hole is largely determined by the strength of a strong wind band that flows around the Antarctic area. This strong wind band is, accordingly, a direct consequence of Earth’s rotation and the strong temperature differences between polar and moderate latitudes.

If the band of wind is strong for example, it acts like a barrier. Consequently, air masses between polar and temperate latitudes can no longer be exchanged. The air masses then remain isolated over the polar latitudes and cool down during the winter.

Although it may be too early to discuss the reasons behind the current ozone concentrations, some researchers speculate that 2023’s ozone hole could be associated with the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in January 2022.

Antje explained:

The eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano in January 2022 injected a lot of water vapor into the stratosphere. It only reached the south polar regions after the end of the 2022 ozone hole.

The water vapor could have led to the heightened formation of polar stratospheric clouds, where chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) can react and accelerate ozone depletion. In addition, the presence of water vapor may also contribute to the cooling of the Antarctic stratosphere. This would further enhance the formation of these polar stratospheric clouds and resulting in a more robust polar vortex.

Impact of the Tonga eruption

However, it’s important to note that the exact impact of the Hunga Tonga eruption on the Southern Hemisphere ozone hole is still a subject of ongoing research. Notably, this is due to the absence of previous instances where such substantial amounts of water vapor were injected into the stratosphere in modern observations.

ESA’s mission manager for Copernicus Sentinel-5P, Claus Zehner, added:

The Sentinel-5P total ozone columns provide an accurate means to monitor ozone hole occurrences from space. Ozone hole phenomena cannot be used in straightforward manner for monitoring global ozone changes as they are determined by the strength of regional wind fields that flow around polar areas.

Lingering ozone-depleting substances

In the 1970s and 1980s, the widespread use of damaging chlorofluorocarbons in products such as refrigerators and aerosol tins damaged ozone high up in our atmosphere that led to a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica.

Consequently, in response to this, the Montreal Protocol was created in 1987 to protect the ozone layer. Thus, by phasing out the production and consumption of these harmful substances, the ozone layer recovered.

Claus concluded:

Based on the Montreal Protocol and the decrease of anthropogenic ozone-depleting substances, scientists currently predict that the global ozone layer will reach its normal state again by around 2050.

Bottom line: Satellite images show 2023’s ozone hole over Antarctica is one of the biggest on record. The reason could be the eruption of the Tongo volcano in January 2022.


Read more: Ozone hole continues shrinking in 2022

October 12, 2023

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