Published: Thu, May 17, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

Banned Ozone-Harming Gas Creeps Back, Suggesting a Mystery Source

Banned Ozone-Harming Gas Creeps Back, Suggesting a Mystery Source

CFC-11 was originally used as a refrigerant but was banned in 1987 under the Montreal Protocol, the worldwide agreement created to protect the ozone layer.

"It's the most surprising and unexpected observation I've made in my 27 years" of measurements, said study lead author Stephen Montzka, a research chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "In fact, I was amazed by this".

When a hole in the ozone formed over Antarctica, countries around the world in 1987 agreed to phase out several types of ozone-depleting chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), The Associated Press reported.

The finding seems likely to prompt an global investigation into the mysterious source.

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However, according to Durwood Zaelke, an expert on the Montreal Protocol, the massive quantities of CFC-11 indicates that someone is acting in defiance of the ban.

David Fahey, director of NOAA's Chemical Science Division and co-chair of the United Nations Environment Programme's Ozone Secretariat's Science Advisory Panel, said ongoing monitoring of the atmosphere will be key to ensuring that the goal of restoring the ozone layer is achieved. Together, this analysis suggested the emissions are coming from east Asia.

Today, the "hole in the ozone" over the South Pole is showing clear signs of recovery. They found that the difference in CFC-11 concentrations between the northern and southern hemispheres has been increasing, which points to a northern hemisphere source.

"It is therefore imperative that this finding be discussed at the next Ministerial meeting of Governments given recovery of the ozone layer is dependent on all countries complying with the Montreal Protocol (and its adjustments and amendments) with emissions globally dropping to zero". The report also points out that there are alternatives to CFC-11 which are easy to come by and safer to use, so there is no real-world reason to continue using it, making the case all the more perplexing. CFC can still be leaked when old refrigerators are scrapped, for example.

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The researchers have calculated that an additional 6,500 to 13,000 tons emitted each year in Eastern Asia would be enough to account for the trend. A USA observatory in Hawaii found CFC-11 mixed in with other gases that were characteristic of a source coming from somewhere in east Asia, but scientists could not narrow the source down any further.

However, if no action is taken on the new source of emissions, it could be highly significant.

The forbidden emissions, ozone-depleting chemicals grow, said Wednesday a group of scientists, suggesting that someone may secretly produce a pollutant in violation of worldwide agreements. Production was banned, emissions fell and the hole slowly shrank. "They should tell the industries that's not going to work". This insults everybody who's worked on this for the last 30 years. But from 2012 onwards the decline in CFC-11 has been 50% slower than expected.

"Knowing how much time and effort and resources have gone into healing the ozone layer, and to see this is a shocker, frankly", said Montzka. This, in turn, will delay the ozone layer's recovery, and in the meantime leave it more vulnerable to other threats.

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