Science Questions

Do rockets punch holes in the ozone layer?

Sun, 17th May 2009

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Question

Fran, email asked:

Do rockets punch holes in the ozone layer?

Answer

Chris Smith - Well, Fran, we know that the major culprit for making holes in the ozone layer are chemicals called CFCs ó chloro-fluoro carbons. These are things that were used in aerosols, even in aspirin inhalers, but also in fridges as refrigerants, and they were used in huge amounts until the Montreal Treaty came in, in the late 80s to try and ban them. What provoked that was that a group of scientists including Brian Gardner (who appeared here on The Naked Scientists a few years back) had actually noticed this massive hole opening up over Antarctica in the mid-to-late 80s and this hole actually grew to be the size of Australia at its peak. It stopped growing; itís actually beginning to shrink a little bit now and thatís because we have stopped using these chemicals. The reason that they concentrate down in the Antarctic is because the Antarctic is an isolated continent. Itís completely surrounded by ocean and this creates something called a circumpolar current, and this has a sort of whirlpool-like effect in terms of air; and it draws in and concentrates these molecules over the Antarctic over winter when itís very dark. They then accumulate in high clouds over the Antarctic and when the sun comes out the following spring the sun breaks down the CFCs and they get turned into reactive chemicals that would then react with the ozone and deplete it. They are, by far, in a way the worst culprit. We donít send enough rockets and spaceships up into space to make a huge difference, I wouldnít have thought, in grand scheme of things. So I think although we have to be environmentally conscious, I think the benefit of sending rockets into space in terms of what they can do for satellites and furthering research is far greater than the small bit of damage they might make to the ozone layer. So I think on the whole, probably not, itís probably more a manmade, anthropogenic problem. But great question, thank you for that.

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